At the buzzy Philadelphia restaurant Musi, chef Ari Miller is serving a bow tie pasta with silk chile, lemon butter, and parsley, accompanied by a particularly cheeky menu description: “The silk chili is from Kahramanmaras, Turkey. This dish is from the kids’ menu.” I had to order it, and I found myself giggling as it hit the table: Here I was in the middle of dinner at a hot new restaurant, a dinner that had to this point included an earthy beef heart tartare, a meticulously rendered country pate, and a bowl of house-milled corn polenta with pickled as well as poached rutabaga. You know, serious food. And then came a plate of buttery bow ties.
As I learned when I took my first bite, the bow ties were serious, too. The noodles were perfectly cooked, and the sauce rang with bright, lemony acidity and subtle heat. There was more to the dish than meets the eye — but not so much more that it lost the throughline of a kids’ dish made for grownups.
Pasta will always have a home on American menus, but right now chefs are having fun with shapes. At the Philly Chef Conference earlier this month, chef Missy Robbins explained that the malfadini — a flat ribbon with ruffled edges — at her essential Brooklyn restaurant Lilia is so popular she basically can’t take it off the menu. One of the early standout dishes at new LA restaurant Blackship is a hamachi bolognese made with casarecce, a cylindrical noodle with a ridge down the middle, while north in San Francisco, hotspot Prairie is greeting its diners with cockscombs, semicircular noodles with fluted edges like a rooster’s comb (appropriately known as creste di galli in Italian). Right on cue, Grub Street recently published a guide to the offbeat pasta shapes of New York City.
Where many of these shapes are unfamiliar to diners without a pasta obsession, the bow ties at Musi go hard in the other direction. They’ve been on the menu since the restaurant opened February 8, before which Miller says neighbors were asking about the menu’s kids’ options. Miller, who previously worked the pasta station at Eli Kulp’s acclaimed Philly restaurant High Street on Market, remembered how special he found it to make buttered noodles for kids who came there. So to anyone who’d ask, he’d say he’d serve kids handmade noodles with butter. He recalls, “And there was always this moment in the adults’ faces like, Do I get to order those?” Realizing how many folks were craving buttered noodles, he set about creating a version he wouldn’t feel “ridiculous” selling to his older diners.
Miller and his team make the bow ties in house, using whole eggs and Small Valley Milling all-purpose flour. (Whole eggs are in play because to use only yolks would produce more egg whites than the restaurant would possibly need, and Miller wants to keep Musi as waste-efficient as possible.) With silken chile from Burlap and Barrel spice company, butter, lemon, and parsley, the pasta arrives on a grandma-style china plate.
In the weeks since the restaurant’s been open, the bow ties have become the must-order dish. “Almost every table” orders a plate, Miller says, and some folks have even ordered seconds. The bow ties have also been making serious Instagram rounds (exhibit a, b, c, d). It’s easy to see why. Pasta generally is an easy sell for food ’grammers — and in feeds increasingly dominated by cacio e pepe twirls and noodle pulls (and their close cousin, the noodle thot shot), the appeal of an unconventional shape is obvious. If it’s something diners haven’t seen before (or in the case of the buttered bow ties, haven’t seen in an upscale restaurant), maybe they’ll want to share it with their Instagram audiences. And if it’s visibly unpretentious, a contrast to the over-the-top theatrics of, say, a melting scrape of raclette off the wheel or copious truffle shavings, it will stand out all the more. And dishes that stand out on social media do sell ~in real life~.
Even though the dish is finding its footing on Instagram, Miller isn’t planning on keeping it on the menu forever. He’s committed to the idea of a buttered noodle, but next he wants to try focusing on a different Burlap and Barrel spice, a black pepper from Zanzibar. Instead of bow ties, he’ll do sorprese, an unfilled pasta shaped like little fortune cookies. But if his customers want the bow ties back, no problem, he’ll put them back on the menu.
I hope these bow ties — and Miller’s cheerful willingness to continuing serving them if it’s what his customers want — are a sign of more gimmick-free fun to come in 2019. I take restaurants seriously, but right now, I’m all in on chefs and operators finding smart moments of levity without resorting to terrible puns or rainbow Instabaiting. Stealing a simple pleasure from a kids’ menu while also reacquainting me with a pasta shape I’d basically ignored my entire adult life definitely hits the mark. “We’re trying to offer the joy, and the delight with this dish,” Miller says. “We’re not trying to pull any tricks on anyone.”
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.