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.
September 09, 2007
May 03, 2007
If I told you that my posting has been sparse lately because I’ve been hanging out in women’s restrooms across Center City, would that sound weird? Well, weird or not, it’s partially true.
I wrote a Top 5 for the City Paper, which appears in this week’s issue—Top 5 Brilliant Bathrooms. There will be disagreement over the selections, no doubt. But each entry is principled. Plus, I put a lot of work into the project, and I somehow managed to do so without getting arrested.
I also worked with City Paper to come up with a semi-regular feature called Pocket Sommelier. The one thing you give up at a BYOB is the wine service. So we thought it would be cool to take some of the guesswork out of your BYOB experience by pairing a wine with a dish or two from an area BYOB. The first installment of Pocket Sommelier features two dishes from Bisto 7 and the Franciscan Chardonnay Napa Valley 2005 (PLCB No. 16506, $11.99), which is a Chairman’s Selection. For example, this Chardonnay works well with that gnocchi dish because the Royal Trumpet mushrooms are rich and delicate. Earthier mushrooms, though, may not work as well.
I also signed on to do the Wine Chow column over at ClassicWines.com. In this week’s column I talk about how the small plates phenomenon has changed how we drink wine. To illustrate this point, I discuss Tinto’s Basque cuisine and its regionally-focused wine list.
September 29, 2006
Another Restaurant Week here in Center City has come and gone. As always, the draw of this event is the chance to get a three-course meal at a chic Center City restaurant for only $30. Getting a good meal, though, can be a serious challenge. The reason this is so is because not all restaurants take the same approach to Restaurant Week. Some restaurants see it as an opportunity to shine and showcase their cuisine. Others, however, are only trying to cash in. In addition, some restaurants, for whatever reason, serve only their limited Restaurant Week menu (which I previously complained about here), depriving customers of the opportunity to experience their more celebrated fare. And, of course, there’s always a chance that the hungry throngs will overwhelm the restaurant’s staff, affecting the quality of both the service and the meal.
It’s hit or miss.
During this Restaurant Week we decided to try Chez Colette, a French restaurant located in the Sofitel. Chez Colette wasn’t necessarily my first choice (I waited a little too long to make reservations), but I had heard some good things about it so we decided to give it a shot. As soon as we arrived at 7:00 p.m., though, we immediately noticed two things: (1) the place was empty; and (2) they were only serving from their Restaurant Week menu. These were not encouraging signs.
We both started off with a cup of the French Onion Soup. The soup was light and not too salty. It was topped with a mix of Gruyere and some other type of “Swiss cheese.” However, the other “Swiss” took something away from the punch I’ve come to expect from a French onion soup topped only with Gruyere.
The server recommended the Lemon Chicken Breast with Mushroom Risotto. The entire dish, as you can see, was swimming in an overwhelmingly rich butter sauce, making it rather one-dimensional. Unfortunately, the chicken was dry and overcooked. The Mushroom Risotto, which I assume was the focus of this dish, also was disappointing. It was gummy, and although there were several sliced pizza-style mushrooms mixed throughout, it had virtually had no mushroom flavor at all.
My wife picked the Seared Tilapia, Grilled Asparagus Israeli Couscous in a Beurre Blanc Sauce. The tilapia was fresh; however, it, too, was dry and overcooked. The couscous had a nice texture and was well prepared, but unfortunately it was bland. Even just a small amount of spice could have added some depth to the couscous.
Finally, we each received a festive dessert trio: Raspberry Sorbet on top of a Meringue Cup, a Lemon Tart and a Coco Loco. The sorbet—my favorite of the trio—was an explosive burst of fresh, juicy raspberries. The meringue underneath was crisp and airy. The Lemon Tart was light, tasty and refreshing. The Coco Loco, a small wedge of cake densely packed with coconut, had a bit too much coconut for me.
My second Restaurant Week experience was unplanned (hence, no pics). A friend of mine and I grabbed a drink at Washington Square after work. In February I enjoyed Washington Square during Restaurant Week, so I wasn’t planning to hit it this time. But we got hungry at the bar and decided to order from the Restaurant Week menu. Here’s a tip for the next Restaurant Week: If you weren’t lucky enough to get reservations, grab a Restaurant Week menu and just eat at the bar.
I started with the Romaine Salad, which tasted just as good as it did in February. This time, for the entrée I tried the Merguez Orecchiette with Spicy Lamb Sausage. The meaty sauce was lightly accented with a touch of cumin, which added a bit of sophistication to this unassuming dish. For dessert, a thick, creamy dollop of silky milk chocolate mousse with a side of rich whipped cream delicately infused with coconut.
So, over all, Chez Colette was a miss this time around. Washington Square, once again, was a hit. Ultimately, Restaurant Week may not be the best way to find out what a restaurant is really like. But it definitely will answer this question—Is the restaurant able (or willing) to pull off a good meal under abnormal conditions? Is that information useful? Who knows? But it certainly is fun keeping score.
July 19, 2006
Amada is an authentic Spanish tapas bar in Old City. As I mentioned a few months back, Wine Spectator mentioned Amada in an article about Philadelphia restaurants in its April 2006 issue. Since then I’ve been looking forward to trying Amada, but it’s been difficult to get reservations the few times I tried.
However, on July 4th, with the exception of the predictable gaggle of tourists in the traditional spots, Center City was virtually empty. Recognizing the opportunity, my wife and I shot over to Amada for lunch.
The lunch menu features a smaller selection of tapas as well as salads and sandwiches. We started off, of course, with a pitcher of the Sangria Tinto ($28)—spiced red wine with oranges, apples and cinnamon. We thought the cinnamon would make the sangria too heavy, but that wasn’t the case. The sangria was light, crisp and refreshing, and the cinnamon added a depth that sets Amada’s version apart from the rest. Normally, I prefer my sangria to be a little more potent than Amada’s, but on this hot July day their softer version really hit the spot.
The first dish we tried was the aged Manchego with Truffled Lavender Honey ($7). Amada imports the lavender honey from Spain and then they infuse it with truffle oil. They sell the lavender honey sans truffle oil in jars for you to take home; I’m told the truffled version may be available soon. The lavender adds a light, perfumy background touch without being overpowering. The truffle oil does a nice job of negotiating the connection between the sweet, flowery honey and the savory cheese, making this dish surprising fulfilling for a cheese plate.
I also ordered the Chorizo Pamplona ($7). The waitress tried to steer me toward the grilled version of this dish, which she recommended, but I was in the mood for a cold meat dish to go alongside the cheese plate and the thinly sliced chorizo was a solid starter. This dish came with mustard, cornichons and crisp, tangy caper berries.
Next, we tried the Piquillos Rellenos—crab-stuffed peppers topped with almonds ($12). This dish was our favorite. The peppers were roasted and de-skinned, and the amazingly mouth-watering crab stuffing was warm, rich and creamy. The dish, however, could benefit from a defining spice to pull the peppers and the crab filling together.
Finally, I ordered the Lamb Chops ($14). The flavor of this dish lies in its simplicity—the medium rare chops were rubbed only with salt and pepper, allowing the natural juices to seduce your taste buds. But the chops were tougher than I expected them to be and, unfortunately, I didn’t have the right silverware to avoid having to gnaw on the bone. Not that I minded; it was the Fourth of July, after all, and I’m sure that’s what our Founding Fathers would have done.
On Wednesday and Friday evenings at 9:00 p.m. Amada hosts Flamenco dancing on a stage in the main dining area. When they’re not dancing, the curtains around the stage can be drawn to turn it into a private dining room for you and your friends. If you want to feel like an insider, ask for “Table 31” when making reservations for the stage table.
217-219 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19106