A mother's touch at the stove can be impossible to recapture. And for Lou Boquila, who lost his mom, Perla Boquila, five years ago, the initial efforts were discouraging.
"I missed her food and tried to play around with Filipino flavors for staff meals," says Boquila, who was then chef at Audrey Claire. "I made adobo and it tasted good, but it never tasted right. And I knew it would never be that way again. I'll never get my mom's cooking back again - just memories and hints of it."
Did the adobo have the right balance of sour, heat, and sweet? Could he re-create the spirit of her popular pancit noodles? "My ratios were never quite right," he concedes.
But that doesn't mean he stopped trying. And despite the sometimes distant modern dishes that emerge from his new restaurant called Perla - seared Rohan duck breast with seasonal veggies in an adobo "jus," a tangle of chitarra pasta instead of rice noodles for that pancit - this cozy 30-seat BYOB off East Passyunk is very much an homage to his mom, who brought him and his sister from Manila to Olney when he was a year old and she was a young widow trying to make a better life.
She hoped he might become a doctor or engineer. But Lou became a chef, a Central High grad who worked his way up from dishwasher to line cook at Twenty Manning and eventually to head chef at Audrey Claire, where he cooked Mediterranean food with more confidence than he did the kare-kare he grew up with. Because his mom never taught him.
But with Perla's two distinct menu concepts served on separate evenings - a modern take on Filipino flavors served à la carte most weeknights, and a traditional Kamayan feast served family-style on Sundays - eating there is like watching two ends of the same thread try to reconnect in a 35-year-old, as a fully assimilated immigrant both rediscovers his roots and redefines himself dish by dish. It is fascinating, and often tasty, even as it occasionally disappoints.
The most compelling moments have been those Kamayan feasts, where Boquila emerges from the open kitchen and dumps a mound of garlic rice down the center of a table lined with toasted banana leaves and then returns again and again to layer an entire feast of rustic treasures over top. Whole chickens - marinated overnight in the juice of Filipino lemons called calamansi, with ginger, garlic and soy - are slow-roasted to tenderness then grilled to finish. Crispy lumpia spring rolls are filled with gingery ground-pork stuffings that are perfect with the house banana ketchup squirted on the table at each diner's place. A hearty vegetable pinakbet stew - cipollini onions, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, long beans, bok choy, and okra - adds a flavorful base tossed in a vegetarian version of bagoong, a sauce made with fermented soy beans and seaweed instead of the usually more pungent shrimp paste.
And then there are the crunchy nuggets of deep-fried lechon pork belly, plus a whole two-pound striped bass crowning the pile, its rice-flour crust slashed with vents across the flesh that make it easy to devour without utensils. Which is handy because there are none. That's right: The Kamayan feast is traditionally eaten with your hands, and once we all dug in and got our fingers slick with the fragrant oil of that heady garlic rice, there was no going back. Even my fastidious wife got over it. Not only was it a deliciously fair value, at $40 a person with a dessert of coconut panna cotta and a bouncy rice flour bibingka cake included, I've not had this much fun sharing a meal in a long time.
That sense of unbridled familial joy is harder to come by in Perla's more refined à la carte menu experience, where Boquila occasionally struggled to strike the right tone between modern American presentation for $23 to $27 a plate and the edgier flavors that might give it distinctively Filipino personality. I loved the duck dish overall as a generic duck dish. But as an upmarket riff on adobo, with all the marinade's sweet, sour, and spicy zing concentrated into a mild-mannered pork "jus" rather than braised into the bird itself, it lacked an essential swagger.
The Filipino ceviche called kinilaw was outstanding, with cobia glazed in a gingery cucumber puree enriched with coconut milk and palm vinegar. Sweet head-on prawns and pulverized prawn shell dust gave a nice punch to the chitarra noodle pancit.
But a series of technical flaws held some dishes back from their potential. The octopus escabeche was chewy. The sinangag garlic rice was as addictive as ever, but an undercooked marrow bone laid on top, still bloody when I spooned in, cut my craving cold. The braised short rib kare-kare was superbly tender, and its tahini twist on the usual peanut sauce was fine. But the garnish of tripe bits was unpleasantly rubbery (when they were supposed to be crispy).
Meanwhile, Boquila's thick hunk of lechon pork belly was still so fatty it was a little hard to eat. Of course, it does not benefit from the fact that the city's best pork belly - cracker crisp and meltingly tender - is right next door at Fond, with yet another great belly variation just across the Singing Fountain at Izumi. But that context, ultimately, is part of the larger equation that Boquila must reconcile.
Perla sits at the heart of Philly's hottest dining district, and with its crisp, contemporary look, from the coal-black brick exterior to the Spanish tile accents, minimalist lighting, and royal-blue velvet banquette, it looks like it belongs. Rents being what they are in such a coveted neighborhood, the impulse to upscale and polish a traditional cuisine is understandable. And for a region with many Filipinos, but almost no Filipino restaurants, it's needed.
But its success will depend on whether those dishes consistently capture the spirit that inspired them to begin with - the love of an assimilated immigrant son cooking to reconnect with the memory of his mother and define his own identity in the process. I felt that soulful power in Perla's Kamayan feast, with my hands buried deep in the warmth of garlic rice and the taste of flaky lumpia and adobo chicken on my lips. So it's a positive development that the meal will be offered on Wednesday evenings, too, beginning in December. The modern expressions will surely come, but Boquila may well need to dive deeper into tradition and master those flavors first, before he can truly move forward.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Lou Bird's.