Chef Guillermo Pernot is credited with introducing Nuevo Latino cuisine to Philadelphia. And when he opened ¡Pasión! eight and a half years ago, the upscale establishment soon became one of the most exciting destination spots in Philadelphia, earning an impressive three bells from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan.
But when ¡Pasión! closed suddenly this past June, Pernot was blamed.
Pernot left ¡Pasión! a year ago this September to become the Executive Concept Chef at Cuba Libre. When the Inquirer’s Michael Kline asked Michael Dombkoski, Pernot’s former partner at ¡Pasión!, why the restaurant was closing, Dombkoski partially blamed Pernot. “Everyone knew he wasn’t in his kitchen,” Dombkoski said. According to Klein’s article, Dombkoski also cited “a lack of convention business, heightened competition (including the city’s crop of BYOBs) and a burgeoning trend to more casual dining” as reasons for the closure.
Pernot has remained silent about why ¡Pasión! closed and why he joined forces with Cuba Libre. Now, Pernot finally speaks out.
Pernot acknowledges that business at ¡Pasión! was down. “There were good days, there were bad days,” Pernot recalls. “And business was very slow compared to what it should be, in previous years.”
But Pernot denies that he’s to blame for the restaurant’s demise. “I don’t think ¡Pasión! closed because I was not there,” Pernot said. “There were a lot of very talented people that I left in charge of the restaurant.” According to Pernot, Domkoski’s other explanations make more sense. “Michael also blamed the fact that restaurant closed on a lot of the BYOBs, and the fact that there were a lot less conventions coming into town,” Pernot said.
Teaming up with Cuba Libre is nothing new for Pernot. “I opened Cuba Libre six years ago,” Pernot noted. “I was a consultant chef then.” It seems only natural that Cuba Libre would turn once again to Pernot when it decided to expand the restaurant across the U.S., beyond Philadelphia and Atlantic City (Pernot was tight-lipped on the next location).
“They brought me back as the Executive Concept Chef because they needed something different,” Pernot said. “They needed somebody to take the ship by the wheel and steer them in the right direction.”
The timing was right for Pernot. “I needed to grow, to do something else,” Pernot said. Revitalizing the menu and standardizing the recipes for Cuba Libre’s future locations was just the challenge this two-time winner of The James Beard Award was looking for. “Cuba Libre gave me the opportunity to develop a new style of cooking,” Pernot said.
It’s tempting to conclude that a standardized menu would want for taste and spirit. That may be true of some menus, but not if it's one created by Pernot. When asked how he revised the menu, Pernot says he made it “more exciting” by adding “a lot more layers of flavor.”
One of the new dishes Pernot cites to demonstrate his point is the Torta de Cangrejo (which I've had several times over the past couple of months). It's a jumbo lump crab cake over avocado slices in a refreshing gazpacho vinaigrette and topped with a fresh deconstructed gazpacho salad ($15 app/$29 entrée, tasting size pictured). Though crispy from being pan-seared, the crab cake inside is surprisingly light. Much of the richness, instead, comes from the avocado. And the acidity from the gazpacho vinaigrette makes the dish very well-balanced.
Pernot also says he introduced new cooking techniques to Cuba Libre’s kitchen. For example, Pernot added the Vaca Frita, an addictive and tender short rib steak (which I've also had several times) that is braised and crisped. It’s served with “Moros y Cristianos,” grilled red onion and pepper salad, and a dense and flavorful red wine sauce ($21, tasting size pictured).
But layering flavors and introducing different cooking techniques are only a means to Pernot’s true passion—satisfying his customers. “It’s what happens that day, that the guest is happy and that you are happy with what just went out,” Pernot said. “It’s all about that, at least for me.”
2nd and Market St., Philadelphia
For pics of more items on Cube Libre’s new menu, check out my Cuba Libre set on Flickr.