On Feb. 15, at the site of the former Cozumel on Elmwood Avenue, I had the opportunity to attend the soft opening of Pasion, one of the year’s most anticipated restaurants. Created by Yeslin Greason, Pasion is an elegant Cuban restaurant with an inexpensive price point.
This was a soft opening, a restaurant's “dress rehearsal” before the big show, so I expected a few bumps. What I did not expect was one of the greatest Cuban sandwiches I have ever eaten, but more on that later.
If you have chutzpah to name a restaurant Pasion (pronounced with three syllables and plenty of Latin flair), its people better exude intense enthusiasm. Greason hired some local talent with plenty of intensity: Joshua Campbell behind the bar, and Manuel Cruz in the kitchen.
Campbell was previously a bartender at the heart of Rochester's cocktail scene, The Revelry, and more recently at local cocktail nirvana Buffalo Proper. Campbell's own style emerges with a strong tropical flair, featuring rums, juices and tiki drinks that fit Pasion's theme well.
Campbell also brought on the talented Dave Busch, also trained by Buffalo Proper’s Jon Karel, who has been an integral part in shaping Buffalo's cocktail scene from the beginning when he tended bar at Vera Pizzeria and Buffalo Proper.
While I have had less experience with Cruz, a Cuban descendant and recent Miami émigré, I did enjoy his Cuban cuisine when he had a short stint at the recently closed BillyBar in Williamsville.
Upon entering Pasion, you may notice the giant selection of rums and other spirits by Campbell. The dining room area was spacious, with plenty of room between tables and a large, variegated, watercolored Cuba on the back wall.
The drink menu is segregated by tropical classics like the Cuba Libre, zombie, and mojito; a selection of sangria; a selection of six different punches that can be shared with your table, and two pages of Campbell’s own creations, split between “suave” and “fuerte.”
Having of more of a suave nature, I opted for a cocktail named Big in Japan ($10) made with Japanese whiskey, Suze (mild French liqueur), jaggery (raw sugar), oregano, and tropical juices. This drink was smooth and well balanced, with a wonderful nose of oregano with each sip. My favorite of the evening was the Banazerac ($11), a twist on a classic sazerac using both rye and a banana liqueur. What I thought would have been an overly sweet monstrosity turned out to have a mild banana flavor which played well off of the absinthe and rye.
Eventually, my wine guru and friend Vinny Caputi ordered a bottle of Abando Rioja Blanco ($35) which paired well with the varied Cuban flavors.
The menu offers some Cuban and Latin treats found nowhere else in WNY. For dinner my table feasted on Cuban classics, our favorites being the croquettas de jamon, ham croquettes ($6) and frituras de bacalao, salted cod fritters ($8). The croquettas were crispy finger-sized, fried sticks stuffed with chopped ham and a cheese mornay, reminiscent of ham salad.
Being Italian, I could not resist and loved the salted cod, which is a flavor I was familiar with from my youth. Instead of hiding the strong, salty cod flavor with filler, Cruz let it shine through in these crispy fried balls, paired nicely with a roasted garlic aioli.
We also tried the tostones rellenos ($11) a fried, smashed, green plantain cup filled with shrimp creole, and Venezuelan arepas con ropa vieja. Pasion is now the second restaurant in town to feature arepas, a soft corn cake that is stuffed with a traditional beef stew aptly named “old clothes.” The ropa vieja was soft and flavorful, and the corn cake was not even slightly greasy.
To slow down, we sampled Peruvian ceviche ($14) and avocado salad ($7). The avocado salad was simple and light, consisting of chunks of avocado, tomato and red onion tossed in a mild, garlicky dressing.
The ceviche was beautiful and tasty. Shrimp and scallops were “cooked” in citrus juice, tossed with onion, peppers, cilantro, cubed dragonfruit, and surprisingly topped with a whipped cream. I have never had whipped cream with a ceviche before; it cut through and mellowed the citrus beautifully. The dragonfruit could have been more ripe, but it’s February in Buffalo.
We followed up that course with a round of pastelitos de carne ($7). There is something wonderful about meat wrapped in pastry, and while I have grown accustomed to its cousin, the Puerto Rican pastelillos in a crispy shell, here the shell was buttery puff pastry.
Inside was beef, pork and chorizo, olives and raisins, and it was glazed with syrup. Its sweet and salty meat, mixed with buttery pastry, brought a small tear of joy to my eye.
The only miss of the evening was the pinchos, which are basically kabobs served over hot coal “pebbles.” We tried the shrimp ($9), chicken ($7) and churasco ($9 skirt steak). Unfortunately, they had been allowed to sit around too long, so the charcoal was no longer warm, the meat quite dry.
Based on the other courses, I will blame this on the timing problems inherent in a soft opening, which can be tweaked in the future.
My friend Roy Bakos, who has never been shy at a table, insisted on a few more items so as to be thorough. We opted for a few sandwiches along with the medio pollo ($15), an 8-hour marinated chicken roasted and served with maduros (fried sweet plantains) and moros y Christianos (Cuban rice and beans).
While the chicken was very moist it was the maduros that stole the show. Fried to the color of Fidel Castro's favorite cigar, the maduros were sweet and wonderful, quickly gobbled down by our already full table.
Then the sandwich course arrived. We tried two sandwiches both served pressed in Cuban bread: the Elena Ruth ($7) a sandwich of turkey, cream cheese and strawberry jam, and El Cubano ($9). While the Elena Ruth was reminiscent of a Monte Cristo with a lot less grease, the Cuban sandwich is what is going to make this restaurant known.
I am tired of Cuban sandwiches in Buffalo arriving stuffed with pulled BBQ pork or cold cuts. Cruz drew on his Cuban roots and made his sandwich simple with sliced ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, mustard sauce and roasted sliced pork. The pork was fall apart tender and flavorful, the pickles and mustard cut through the fats, and the Cuban bread was perfect. I’d call it the best Cuban in Buffalo.
Dessert, which includes flan and my personal favorite, tres leches cake, was out of the question.
While my heart was enflamed by Pasion, my belly was not, as nothing was overly spicy or greasy. With items like gator bites, Jonah crab claws and a whole fried fish on the menu, I’ll be back. Cozumel’s patio was a favorite stop on the first hot day of spring. Now I can ride out the rest of the winter on the dream of soaking up rays with a Campbell tiki cocktail.
Info: Pasion, 153 Elmwood Ave.; 436-2444;