It was the grande fiesta that never happened. Corazon, the highly anticipated collaboration between iconic chef Christopher Israel (Gruner) and fast-moving indie restaurant company ChefStable, was dead on arrival in early May. Only three months after opening in downtown Portland, the Mexican eatery served its last meal on Saturday night. Previously, the space was home of the short-lived, million dollar disaster known as Pinot Brasserie.
Over the weekend, Huffman put it bluntly to Eat Beat: "It was a fiasco. It’s my fault. I blew it."
Signs of trouble surfaced in early June, following poor word-of-mouth and complaints about big prices and little coherence. In a menu reboot, Corazon said goodbye $16 margaritas, hello casual cantina. It didn’t help. Last week, Israel confirmed to Eat Beat he was out of the kitchen. In his place: the molecular-leaning chef Anthony Cafiero, who abruptly departed SE Portland’s Tabla recently, saying he was in talks with backer to open his dream "modern tapas" restaurant.
But Corazon’s recovery—financial and otherwise—seemed out of reach. "We’re trying to make Frankenstein out of a living creature," says Huffman. "I want to bury it."
What went wrong? Huffman says Pinot Brasserie’s investors brought him in to help salvage a large, empty space hemorrhaging money. But the project was flawed from the beginning. Says Huffman: "I was trying to genetically engineer a solution to a problem. I’m not good at that. Concepts turn into soulless projects. A great restaurant is so much more than a concept."
In the end, Corazon departed from ChefStable’s core mission: to let culinary dreamers drive the ideas while Huffman manages the typical roadblocks to success—finances, book-keeping, and structure. The company has put its muscle behind a slew of Portland restaurants, including newcomers Ox, Oven & Shaker, Lardo, The Sugar Cube, and Market.
According to Huffman, Cafiero worked valiantly, but a "hired gun" is the anti-thesis of the model he set out to create: "We don’t bring in people to cook other people’s food. Anthony seemed like a great idea, young and talented. But Mexican food is not his medium. It didn’t make sense, for him or for us."
Corazon didn’t feel right for Israel, either. In the beginning, Huffman dreamed of rocking tacos served to a swirl of humanity in full-on party mode. Meanwhile, Israel conjured complexity and grew frustrated when he couldn’t find a team to execute his ambitions. "I took it too personally, trying to honor my background," says Israel, whose grandfather is Mexican. "I didn’t want to be remembered as a taqueria. Everyone thinks Mexican food is easy, but it’s not.”
"From beginning to end, it didn’t work out," says Huffman. "The smartest decision I made about Corazon was to close it."