Venue Review: Gregoria's Cuban Steakhouse
When a fire closed Gregoria's Kitchen in January 2013, fans of the restaurant immediately started asking, "When are you going to reopen?"
You couldn't blame them. In the sixteen short months of its existence, Gregoria's authentic Cuban fare and cozy setting in a converted 1920s stone house had made it one of Durham's favorite dining destinations. Adding urgency to their question was the fact that the restaurant's specialty was a cuisine offered by only a handful of restaurants in the Triangle.
Then owner Fares Hanna announced that he was looking for a new location. The question changed from "When?" to "Where?"
Another question on everyone's mind, as the search dragged on for nearly a year and it was learned that chef Dania Gonzales (whose Cuban mother is the restaurant's namesake) had moved on to work elsewhere, was "Will the new Gregoria's be as good as the old one?"
The answers to these questions came in January of this year, when Gregoria's Cuban Steakhouse opened in the building that had for many years been home to China Inn. To say that Hanna gave the tired old building a makeover would be an understatement.
The new location can't reproduce the intimate warmth of the old one, but it makes up for the loss of coziness with a much roomier space and loads of Latin charm, courtesy of potted palms, ornate chandeliers and framed black and white photos of pre-Castro Havana on walls of ripe tomato red and dulce de leche.
Also new is a spacious, secluded patio that beckons with hibiscus flowers and bentwood chairs at tables shaded by khaki umbrellas. Enclosed by a wrought iron fence, landscape greenery and an outbuilding painted with an island sunset, you can picture yourself unwinding by a cabana. In the coming weeks, a window in that building will reveal a second bar, dispensing the mojitos and other refreshments that will only enhance the spell.
And the answer to that unspoken question about the food is a resounding "Yes!" Thanks in large measure to veteran executive chef Michael Pirnik, who was born in New York of Cuban parents, trained in Paris and has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and New York, the food will not disappoint. That applies to both new fans - of which there will no doubt be many - and returning ones, who will be happy to know that sous chef Oscar Hernandez, who worked at Gregoria's Kitchen, is back on board to ensure continuity.
An appetizer of platano maduro relleno - sweet plantain stuffed with a savory hash of minced beef, onion, garlic and red pepper - is every bit as captivating here as it was at the original location. Same goes for mussels sautéed with chorizo in a roasted tomato broth. And if the new chef has tweaked the recipes for classic Cuban entrees such as ropa vieja, vaca frita and lechon asado, you'd be hard-pressed to tell. Even the plates they're served on, with rims painted in a richly colorful pattern evocative of Spanish tiles - are the same.
That's not to say that the new menu is a clone of the old one. As the restaurant's name suggests, the offering now includes a section devoted to steaks and chops, with options ranging from a 14-ounce New York strip (with mofongo, a savory mash of fried plantains, standing in for the traditional American potato side), to a pork porterhouse with cucumber relish. A pungent chimichurri accents the juices that puddle beneath a medium-rare grilled skirt steak in a presentation rounded out with batons of fried yuca.
Chef Pirnik's personal imprint is evident, too, in the form of new items sprinkled throughout the menu. Cuban sliders, featuring patties of ground beef and chorizo, are his toothsome take on the ubiquitous trend. Chicharrones, crunchy-chewy cubes of pork belly served with house-made pickles, are downright addictive.
A recent entree offering called fideos served up a generous catch of fresh fish and shellfish with vermicelli noodles in a flavorful seafood broth. In its absence, the seafood paella for two that floated tantalizingly past our table one night ought to provide ample consolation. If you can't talk a dining companion into sharing the paella, rest assured that the chef's instinct for seafood is also evident in the nightly catch - anything from grouper to whole flounder, typically from the waters off North or South Carolina.
Kitchen miscues are infrequent. A dense, tough-at-the-edges crust marred an otherwise fine empanada de pollo asado. The "molten" center of a chocolate lava cake was still cold.
A few days later, when I spoke to the owner on the phone, he said the kitchen was aware of the problem with the lava cake and had already taken steps to correct it. He was also eager to address my concerns about the wait staff, who had been uniformly friendly but variably attentive when I dined at Gregoria's.
It's clear that Fares Hanna intends to build on the success of Gregoria's Kitchen and raise the bar with its reincarnation as Gregoria's Cuban Steakhouse. By and large, he has succeeded. And, while the new restaurant is more ambitious than the old one, it still preserves the authentic spirit of its namesake.