The Gossiping Gourmet: 'Treasure' found on Balboa Island

HB Independent

Nestled in a tiny storefront on Balboa Island is a charming, romantic little bistro called Pas.tu, which means "treasure box" in Persian. A treasure box it is, with its candle-lit atmosphere, the sound of trickling water from the fountain on the terrace and the wrought-iron grillwork of the entryway secluding this little gem from the hustle and bustle of the street. All this and the tastefully appointed décor with crisp white linens combine to make it a delightful place to dine.

The menu features a mixture of classic dishes from Persian, French, Italian and California cuisines. For a starter, a popular choice is the prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with tomato, mozzarella and basil. The combination appetizer plate gives you a chance to sample three Middle Eastern standards: hummus, grape leaves and tzatziki. A basket of warm pita and crunchy French baguette gave us a choice of "scoops" for the two dips. The hummus was presented in the shape of a heart and it was easy to love. It was delicately flavored and smooth-textured with a nice undertone of sesame. It definitely had its own unique character, as did the grape leaves.

The two little dolmas had been cooked for a very long time in a flavorful broth until the leaves were very tender and the well-seasoned rice stuffing had become almost like a puree. Drizzled with high-quality olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar, they were unique and particularly delicious, and we wished there were more of them. Tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber sauce) is always refreshing, but we prefer it as a condiment rather than a dip. So, we saved it for an accompaniment to our chicken kebabs, because they are often quite dry.

We have to report that the tzatziki remained untouched, because the chicken was as moist and tender as chicken breast could possibly be. Served off the skewer, these four plump pieces of grilled juicy chicken were as good as any we have ever tasted. The chicken had been marinated in seasoned yogurt before grilling, which tenderized and flavored it. There were also a few pieces of grilled onion and green pepper on the plate along with a buttery rice pilaf and a cooked plum tomato. The rice was fluffy, subtly seasoned and quite nice.

Representing Italy is the linguine gamberetti. Six sweet and juicy tiger shrimp topped a modest amount of pasta. The al dente linguine was served in a full-flavored house-made marinara sauce replete with Kalamata olives, garlic, white wine, basil and chunky tomatoes. There may have been a little too much sauce for an Italian, but many Americans like it this way. We used the nice French bread to sop up the rest of the tasty sauce.

Expressing the French influence is steak au poivre or chicken rosemary a la Dijonnaise, and for California, there is a tuna steak with tomatoes and olives. One of their most popular dishes is the Mediterranean combo plate with chicken kebab, a filet mignon and a lamb chop, all served with saffron basmati rice.

A variety of house-made desserts includes tiramisu, chocolate cake, fig gelato, pineapple sorbet, lemon ice cream with lemon sorbet in the center and crème brûlée.

On the weekends, there is also baklava and fruit tart. We ordered creme brulee, Terry's favorite dessert.

However, she is a purist and hates any variations on the classic recipe. So, even though this custard was smooth and creamy and had nice, albeit thick, caramelized topping, there was an unfamiliar taste, which was finally identified as almond extract. It was a spoiler for her, as it didn't have that deep, rich vanilla flavor that is essential to a proper brûlée.

The food here is straightforward, no avant-garde flourishes nor trompe l'oeil presentation — just some very tasty food in a very pleasant setting.

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