Potted palms flank the entrance to the distinctive stone building that houses Gregoria's Kitchen, suggesting that a certain elegance awaits inside. Or maybe a tropical motif.
Turns out it's both. Just inside the door of the Cuban restaurant, which opened last September after an extensive makeover of the building that longtime locals will recall as the erstwhile home of a Peddler Steakhouse, you're warmly greeted by dining room manager Burt Ramos, dapper in jacket and tie. Behind him, the intimate scale of the rooms and the patina of hardwood floors reflect the building's original incarnation as a private residence. The only hint that the space was more recently a steakhouse is the copper grill exhaust hood, under which a bartender now muddles sugar cane with mint, lime juice and rum for mojitos at a cozy bar.
Soft lighting from sconces and chandeliers of wrought iron scrollwork washes over vintage still-life paintings and tropical island landscapes hung on walls of a deep claret red. Latin music, soft and sultry, wafts through the rooms, reinforcing a nostalgic pre-Castro Cuban mood.
Aromas of home
For owner/chef Dania Gonzalez, it isn't the sights and sounds so much as the aromas that define Gregoria's Kitchen. Gonzalez named the restaurant for her native Cuban mother, in whose kitchen she first developed a passion for cooking. Her professional career has taken her from southern Florida, where she grew up, to the Triangle, where her resume stretches back well over a decade to Café Giorgio and Fins, back when those restaurants flourished in North Raleigh. For the past several years, Gonzalez has cooked for Three Seasons Catering in Durham.
Fares Hanna, owner of the catering firm, is so impressed with Gonzales' talent - and her dedication to preserving the memories of her mother's kitchen - that he's partnering with her in her debut venture. "If the food doesn't smell like what she remembers," Hanna says, "she won't let it go out into the dining room."
Among those memories, surely, is the briny perfume of mejillones, mussels sautéed in white wine with roasted tomatoes and Spanish chorizo. And the earthy aroma of chicharrones, also offered under the Aperitivos heading: cubed nuggets of pork belly whose alternating layers of crisp lean meat and unctuous fat are played off against the tang of a tamarind dipping sauce.
The fragrance is more subtle in slivers of serrano ham atop delicately crisp croquetas con jamon. Then the flavor explodes when you pop it in your mouth, where it's warmed and amplified by a bite of the béchamel-enriched croquette.
Platano maduro relleno - sweet plantain stuffed with a savory hash of minced beef, onion, garlic and red pepper - is likewise rewarding.
The garlicky aroma of lechon asado tantalizes when a plate mounded with shreds of the classic Cuban slow-roasted pork, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of sliced avocado, grilled vegetables and tostones, is set before you. But the flavor of the pork is disappointingly restrained.
Tinkering with tradition
There's no shortage of flavor in the grilled skirt steak, however, which is topped with a pungent Cuban riff on chimichurri and accompanied by crisp, golden batons of fried yuca. Nor will vaca frita disappoint: a tangle of beef shreds, some soft and succulent, others seared to a satisfying crunchiness, combining for a taste infinitely more delightful than the name (which translates to "fried cow") would lead you to expect.
Notwithstanding all the tributes to her culinary roots, Gonzalez isn't above engaging in a little artistic license now and then. She fills crisp miniature taco shells with bits of house-smoked fish tossed in a ceviche-like citrus dressing - for a snazzy appetizer. Her nightly fish special might pair grouper or mahi with fresh pineapple and wilted arugula.
The chef even tinkers with ropa vieja, a stew of beef, tomato, garlic and herbs that is a defining dish of Cuban cuisine. Gonzalez jazzes up the traditional version with green olives and chickpeas for a variation that's refreshingly different while preserving the original character of the dish.
For dessert, I'd skip theeggy-tasting coconut flan and opt instead for the guava pastry or the dark rum-spiked tres leches cake. Or maybe just drink dessert, in the form of one of those sweet mojitos.
For all its elegance, Gregoria's Kitchen is by no means a stuffy place. Under Ramos' direction, the wait staff - variable in experience, but uniformly eager to please - set a relaxed, welcoming tone.
The restaurant has just added a Sunday brunch service, with a tempting offering ranging from churrasco steak and eggs to fresh fruit with pan dulce, a Latin American sweet bread. And café Cubano, of course, which I'm sure makes the smells coming out of the kitchen even more mouthwatering.