423 20th St. W
What do you get when you take two of Saskatoon’s hottest young chefs and combine their love for both Mediterranean comfort food and uber-locally sourced food? You get Primal Pasta, the new and delicious project of Christie Peters and Kyle Michael.
For a while Saskatoon had been experiencing a dearth of authentic Italian food. Sure, you can get baked lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs in any of the Greek-Italian restaurants that are part of Saskatoon’s restaurant heritage, but other than Taverna, the old stand-by, and Bottega, which is also a fairly recent addition, there’s not much else.
And neither Bottega nor Taverna pay much attention to locally sourced food (I’ll be corrected if I neglect to mention the Saskatchewan Beet Salad on Bottega’s menu), but we’re not talking locally sourced whole-animal butchery, like we are at Primal. You won’t find stuffed zucchini blossoms and garlic scapes on the menu anywhere else.
The first spark of interest for me when I looked at Primal’s menu is the bone marrow. When they say whole animal butchery, they mean it — you’ve got beef bones on the appetizer list and beef heart in the Bolognese (meat sauce).
On our first visit, we went with three other couples. I know from long experience that this group isn’t really interested in pausing the conversation to order food, so I decided to sidestep that struggle by asking our server if she could just surprise us. We’re all adventurous, and we’re all big into food and wine, so there’s nothing we’re not really going to like.
The server lit up at the idea. I left the ordering of wine to another friend who cares about the wine list even more than I do — and Primal’s wine list is chock full of reasonably priced French, Italian and Spanish selections including Cava and rosé by the glass, so I knew it was all going to be good. I instructed our server to bring us a round of appetizers (including the bone marrow and the country terrine) and then a round of pasta, and we’d check in after that.
These aren’t huge plates and there were eight of us, so we didn’t get huge portions of anything, but the bites we took were delicious and satisfying. We worked our way through house-made fried bread, castelvetrano olives, buffalo mozzarella, carpaccio, bone marrow and country terrine. The terrine was especially fantastic. The bone marrow I found underwhelming, but perhaps I needed one to myself so I could really dig into it. The tiny little spoonful I tasted was rich, but I somehow expected more flavour for the hype.
We moved on to the pasta, trying several of the dishes on offer, including the tagliatelle with Bolognese, spaghetti carbonara, squid ink spaghettini puttanesca alla chitarra with bottarga, olives and capers, and the evening special which was a rigatoni with mushrooms and truffle oil. See what I did there with the squid ink spaghettini? How I gave it more description than the rest of them? Everything was delicious, but the squid ink spaghettini haunts my dreams.
All of those words describe something that adds to the dish. Puttanesca is a classic pasta sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, and sometimes anchovies; in this case, instead of anchovies they use bottarga, a cured fish roe that adds a salty, funky flavour that sings of the sea. Oh, and “chitarra” means it’s made through a square spaghetti machine, which makes the resulting pasta a bit more angular and changes the texture and appearance more than you would expect.
While I’m a sucker for mushrooms, truffles and cream sauce (the mushroom pasta was my second favourite), the squid ink pasta outshone the rest by far. The briny flavour of the sea is everywhere — in the pasta itself, thanks to the squid ink, and in the sauce, thanks to the bottarga, olives and capers. I understand not everyone is delighted by something that tastes like fish, especially when there’s no real fish in it. But I’m entirely smitten.
We weren’t quite full after that course, so they brought out a round of non-pasta main courses, including pork scallopini and eggplant Parmigiana. It was all delicious. Some of us had room for dessert, and the chefs thoughtfully offered some very small bites, such as a truffle, so you could enjoy just a tiny sweet after your meal without committing to a full-on dessert. They had a version of affogato (espresso over gelato) on the menu, served alongside a potato doughnut, so I was all over a full dessert.
A fairly heated discussion ensued at that point over whether this place was better than Taverna. There were friends in the group who were regulars at Taverna, and preferred how they served up the classic Italian comfort food. I pointed out that nothing at Taverna was quite as amazing as the squid ink pasta, and they had to concede that. There’s a time and a place for both restaurants, I think. I still dream of both Taverna’s mushroom risotto, and Primal’s squid ink pasta.
What amazed me even more was the reasonable price of the entire meal. It felt like we had gone all-out. We’d certainly consumed an impressive number of bottles of wine, had some cocktails before dinner, ate a three- (and for some of us four-) course dinner, and some of us had after-dinner drinks, too, yet the price still worked out to $100 per person.
I went back to sample some more summertime flavours with a girlfriend last week. We sipped pinot grigio and rosé while munching on delicate, crispy zucchini blossoms stuffed with buffalo mozzarella, and marinated mackerel with salsa verde. We then chose the pasta special, which was spaghetti with pesto, arugula, garlic scapes and Parmesan, as well as — you guessed it — the squid ink pasta.
My friend’s eyes widened when she tasted the spaghetti with pesto. “It tastes like a garden!” she said. So there we were, sipping beautiful wine and eating food that managed to taste like an entire garden on one plate, and an entire ocean on the other.
The dessert special that night was a Fernet float. Boozy desserts always tempt me, and this one was a fabulous combination of fizz, bitter aperitif, and sweet, silky homemade ice cream. It was the perfect end to the meal. I also managed to sneak a taste of my friend’s lemon custard, topped with crunchy meringue. She was delighted with it.
Primal has nailed what Chefs Peters and Michael have set out to do. Classic comfort food, made with local ingredients and whole-butchered meats. And great wine. And a warm, yet airy space. It’s a beautiful thing.
I can’t believe I haven’t tried their risotto yet. It’s next on my list.