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>http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?BRD=1675&dept_id=18179&newsid=10803570&PAG=461&rfi=9Dining Around: Satisfy your ‘Pasion!’ for Latin cuisine
By TRISH COFIELL , email@example.com 01/14/2004
I was in over my culinary head - with ceviche. Until I walked through the door at Pasión!, Guillermo Pernot’s sassy, salsy Latin restaurant in Center City, I wasn’t quite sure what ceviche was, beyond small dishes of seafood.
A Latin version of sushi, perhaps.
But now that I’ve exposed my plebian palate to Pernot’s adventuresome, artful, delicious ceviche -- I’m impressed.
Pernot also supplied my first taste of exotic ingredients like yuca, chayote, habaneros and beluga lentils.
On a bone-chilling Saturday night, our dinner evolved into an armchair vacation to South America, complete with Latin music, blossoming orchids, colorful art, a vibrant ambiance and tequila.
Each Nuevo Latino dish is plated with impeccable and flamboyant attention to presentation - with giant white platters acting as the canvas for flaming desserts, upright lobster heads, mounds of pepper-dusted ice (to chill the ceviche), delicate flowers and exotic combinations of flavors and textures.
It was hard not to stare at other people’s tables to see what surprises were coming out of the kitchen. And it was fun exploring this uncharted culinary territory. Fortunately our waiter was a well-versed guide.
Pasion! opened its doors near Restaurant Row in 1998 and was immediately recognized as one of the top restaurants in Philadelphia, and beyond.
After only one year, Pasión! was named Best New Restaurant by Philadelphia Magazine and Pernot was named "1999 Chef of the Year" by Esquire magazine’s John Mariani, who said: "Pasión! is one of the most exciting new restaurants this year ... Pernot’s ceviches are the very best I’ve ever tasted."
Pernot also won the 2002 James Beard award for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic, an honor previously bestowed on Philadelphia’s Georges Perrier and Susanna Foo.
Pernot is a native of Argentina. As the story goes, he was 16 and was flying from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires when he was bumped from a flight in Lima, Peru. Grounded for four days, he explored the city and discovered ceviche, a side dish made from shrimp, lobster and black clams.
As he launched his culinary career, he elevated ceviche to new levels. Ceviche stems from the word cebiche meaning "fish stew" and has its origins in Latin American and the Caribbean. While Japanese sushi is preserved in rice vinegar, ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices, which causes the fish to turn opaque and firm.
But Pernot’s menu is not limited to ceviche. His complex, creative dishes include roasted organic chicken breast, braised baby goat, grilled skirt steak, rib eye steak, squid, Maine lobster, lamb chops and duck.
Pernot, himself, described "Nuevo Latino" as "old recipes from Latin America and the Caribbean, with avant garde presentation."
Pasion’s prices are on the high side. Most appetizers are around $10; entrees are $20-$33. We selected the chef’s tasting menu, which features seven courses for $65 per person. With cocktails, tax and tip, we easily hit $100 per person.
But you can definitely dine here for less, especially from Jan. 25-30 when several Center City restaurants are offering a deal of three courses for $30.
The décor at Pasion! is both romantic and Cuban-rustic. Stone walls and louvered dividers enclose the three dining rooms. Bursts of color come from the cloth chair-backs, covered in striped shades of mango, banana and salmon.
We dined under a lovely sky-blue cathedral ceiling. Leafy palms, wrought-iron fixtures and cathedral-style candles all add to the sensuous Latin ambiance.
The dining areas seat 100, and there’s a small bar (with a mural of a Flamenco dancer) and a curved ceviche bar with a view of the kitchen.
Pernot’s partner is Michael Dombkoski, whose expertise is wine, and while I enjoyed a Margarita, I understand he has filled the wine cellar with wines from Argentina, Chile and other countries.
You can also get drinks native to South America such as El Presidente, Caipirinha, Sangría and Mojitos.
The chef’s tasting menu (which changes daily) started with an amuse of seared ahi tuna with sturgeon caviar and vanilla habanero sauce. The ceviche featured top-grade Spanish mackerel served in a salty hucatay black mint sauce atop sweet, red grapefruit.
The appetizer was two small slices of hearty duck breast served on a mound of dark beluga lentils. That was followed by a salad of three jerk shrimp perched around chayote slaw served with swirls of a coconut yuca vinaigrette.
The entrée was spectacular, a palm-sized serving of mild, pan-roasted black bass with a robust shrimp and clam paella.
Nothing was fiery-hot or overly spiced. While it seems that Pernot mixes ingredients with reckless abandon, each dish is balanced, perfectly spiced and delicious. His layering of flavors, textures, ingredients and heat makes each dish a flavor masterpiece.
Even his desserts are imaginative. We had a Latin version of baked Alaska, a volcano-shaped mound of sweet meringue, flaming at the top, with ice-cold mango sorbet inside.
Pernot is credited with bringing exotic ingredients to the Philadelphia market: boniato, yuca, plantains, Spanish mackerel, cilantro and malanga, to name a few.
He comes up with combinations you’d never dream of: confit of suckling pig, piquillo peppers, Manila clams and garbanzo bean stew with asparagus ribbons; tamarind-glazed lobster with pineapple pilaf and chile nage; or grilled sweet-water prawns and seared tuna with pearl onions, baby carrots, tomatoes and Peruvian Lima beans.
But don’t let the exotic ingredients dissuade you from trying Pernot’s culinary wizardry. It’s both fun and delicious.
Hey, don’t cry for me, Argentina; we’ve got your best chef here in Philadelphia.