Technicolored marinades on a Peruvian-powered, pan-Latino menu
DINE Amid the restaurant babble of Ninth and Irving streets (UCSF's answer to Harvard Square), there is one restaurant that stands out as a spot for people who already have all the degrees they're ever going to get, and that is Pasión. The name suggests both the high energy of the place and the style of its cooking, which draws many of its influences from Latin America and, in particular, Peru. The young chef and owner José Calvo-Perez, a native San Franciscan whose father Julio launched what was to become the highly successful Fresca enterprise, describes the style as "modern Latin."
The space was the longtime home of P.J.'s Oyster Bed (Pasión moved in late last year), and because it's in the middle of a cluttered block, it doesn't stand out as a physical fact as much as it does as an idea. You could walk right by without noticing it, or you might notice it but think it's just another one of the sort of food emporia you so often find near large university campuses. But once you're inside, you find that Pasión feels a little like Miami: twinkles and gleams here and there in the suggestively dark lighting, a sense of human warmth, a dramatic open kitchen with two faces at right angles, and a main dining area doubled around the back of the bar like a horseshoe. The restaurant is on the loud side, and no doubt that's in large part because it's busy. Clearly there was an unmet demand for this kind of destination in the neighborhood.
Pasión might not be that innovative — pan-Latin cooking was unexpected 10 years ago; it is less so now. Still, it can't be a bad thing to claim descent from Fresca. Some of the more prominent signifiers of that lineage on the menu are the pollo a la brasa ($18), a beautifully roasted half-chicken with Peruvian-style spices and fine french fries, and a broad selection of ceviches.
As someone who likes ceviche without loving it, I was pleasantly surprised by the exquisiteness of the Pasión version ($10), which brought together cubes of ahi tuna and salmon, kernels of purple corn, and bits of cilantro, red onion, and yellow pepper — I haven't seen so much color in one place since looking into a box of Crayola crayons — in a marinade softened and deepened by passion-fruit purée. Too many ceviches seem to me to be joltingly salty-sour, salt and lime being a pair of alpha ingredients that will fight if there is no mediator. (Morty Seinfeld: "You've gotta have a buffer zone!") A little sugar, a little sweetness, brings a necessary balance, and all the better if the sweetness comes, as here, from a natural source, a sweet fruit, instead of a sack of C&H.
But, even in America, land of the sweet, sweetness isn't always a good thing. The aioli that served as a dipping sauce for salt-cod fritters ($10) had been enhanced with lemon and honey (honeioli?), but for me it was too sweet and reminded me of Miracle Whip. The fritters themselves, presented in a small basket, were right at the edge of being too crisp. And yes, that is a kind of euphemism.
The duck empanadas ($10) were better, though of course they were very rich, made as they were with shreds of duck confit and smoked duck. Here the richness of the meat and the frying was moderated by a clever combination of currants and a sherry reduction — fruit to the rescue again.
Is there a good way to serve paella in a restaurant? Calvo-Perez was probably bound to try to figure one out, since he apprenticed in Spain. My thought would be to make a big, proper one every hour or so and serve portions of it, but Pasión appears to follow a made-to-order model. The kitchen's vegetarian version, called arroz verde ($18), was made with cilantro rice and did have a green sheen, but it was as much gray as green, and this wasn't reassuring. The dish, although presented in a small, cast-iron paella pan, lacked the crust of caramelized rice you hope will form on the bottom. It was also afflicted by a bitterness we finally traced to large chunks of celery, lurking in the murk like alligators in a bog among the green peas, shiitake mushrooms, pickled carrots, and green beans. It also featured an abundance of red onion slivers, which were methodically plucked out (not by me), like bits of shrapnel being removed from a wounded soldier. Obviously some people feel passionately about raw red onions.
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
737 Irving, SF