¡Pasión! Featured in South Philly Review

Posted on Friday, March 23, 2007



South Philly Review: ¡Pasión!

By Phyllis Stein-Novack


With Ben Davison now heading the kitchen, ¡Pasión! offers a $35 three-course meal Tuesday nights. Photo by John Taggart

In December 1998, chef Guillermo Pernot opened ¡Pasión! on South 15th Street. Born and raised in Argentina, he introduced Philadelphia foodies to the flavors of South America, particularly his Nuevo-Latino style.Pernot received rave reviews from nationwide newspapers, culinary magazines and this restaurant critic, as well. In 2002, the James Beard Foundation named him Mid-Atlantic Chef of the Year.

I have not dined at ¡Pasión! in eight years, but two recent developments lured me back to this fine dining spot. Pernot is currently executive chef at Cuba Libre (although he still owns and has input at ¡Pasión!) and Ben Davison is now chef de cuisine and offers a $35 three-course dinner at the circular bar Tuesday evenings.

Dining out has become expensive and many restaurants are offering promotions to bring in customers, especially during the week. My dinner in February 1999 was splendid. Now I wanted to sample the three-course meal.

Chef Kevin Dundon, who owns the celebrated Dunbrody Country House Hotel and Spa in County Wexford, Ireland, joined me. He was in Philadelphia for a few days giving cooking demonstrations at the Flower Show. It was his first trip here and he wanted to eat in as many restaurants as he could.

Kevin and I checked our coats and nestled into high, comfortable chairs facing the warm, open kitchen. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc ($39) and chatted about my hometown.

The special dinner gives a choice of an appetizer, entrée and dessert. We were going to order arepas, but our server said it was the complimentary “amuse bouche” of the evening, which is the French way to stimulate the appetite. Kevin and I each received a miniature arepa of the radicchio, fennel and the cabrales cheese. This dainty tantalizer was a marvelous blend of flavors: a slight bitterness from radicchio, a licorice taste and aroma from the fennel and a rich creamy texture from cabrales, the famous raw cow’s milk cheese from Spain.

The breadbasket was first rate. Kevin and I particularly loved the crispy flatbread infused with heady garlic and minced fresh herbs. Tiny, round corn bread, no larger than a quarter, also were good, as I popped them into my mouth.

We began with paella de orzo and ensalada. Considered one of the national dishes of Spain, paella is cooked on long rectangular grills outdoors. Davison substituted toasted orzo, the tiny rice-shaped pasta that has gained popularity in America, for the typical rice. A large, round timbale of orzo mixed with sweet rock shrimp, spicy chorizo and crispy leeks sat in the center of a large white soup bowl. A light, clear seafood broth enhanced the dish.

Davison used organic baby greens in his salad, a welcome change from the boring bagged mesclun. They were topped with orange segments — another favored Spanish ingredient — and sliced avocado. The surprise was a light vinaigrette infused with coconut milk, which was a first for me, and I found it delightfully refreshing.

For about an hour and a half, Kevin and I watched Davison and his staff prepare each dish in the kitchen, which was immaculate. Davison and his sous chef had the timing down right. The staff watched the tables and the kitchen and brought the meal as soon as it is plated.

My entrée was “pollo y sopa de frijol,” a brilliant pan-roasted organic chicken breast prepared with dried fruits and topped with natural pan juices laced with brandy. A warm, small pot of chicken ropa vieja stew accompanied my meal. It can be difficult to dine on a perfectly roasted chicken that is tender, juicy and hot from the oven. Davison sliced the meaty breast for easy eating and the addition of the stew, chock-full of root vegetables, was a delight.

Cod is one of the oldest fish in the sea and was once very plentiful throughout the world. Davison achieved an unusual combination by matching sweet, pan-roasted cod with bite-size strips of crispy grilled skirt steak. The fish sat on one side of the plate with the scattering of meat on the other. The cod was meaty and flaky; not a bit overcooked. I liked the crunch of the beef and it was a fine foil for the fish.

Flan was the dessert of the evening. This famous baked-egg custard was coated with caramel and served chilled. Kevin and I enjoyed the flavor, but felt a little bit too much gelatin was used.

Service was excellent: Our water glasses and wine glasses were filled whenever needed. Flatware was changed for each course.

After more than eight years, ¡Pasión! is still a fine restaurant. Davison orchestrates the kitchen staff with the ease of a talented conductor. He insists on using the freshest local ingredients and it shows in the final presentation and taste.

Book a seat for the special three-course dinner on a Tuesday evening. You will not be disappointed.

Three tips of the toque to ¡Pasión!

211 S. 15th St.
Credit cards accepted
Open for dinner only
Reservations an absolute must