Tom Sietsema: Free to be brash and loud, Cuba Libre needs more flavor
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Like a lot of new restaurants with big bucks behind them, Cuba Libre, unveiled by GuestCounts Hospitality of Philadelphia, bolted out of the gate last fall.
In its infancy in October, everyone at the mini-chain spinoff was all smiles, and every inch of the 9,000-square-foot Penn Quarter retreat — a full-size re-creation of an Old Havana street scene — sizzled with energy. The only reason diners knew they had stepped indoors was the absence of a breeze or a bird in the expanse.
And the food, a love letter to pre-Castro Cuba, was enormously appealing. I remember sweet-and-sassy meatballs alongside an electric slaw of pickled carrots. There were jumbo shrimp brushed with a mango glaze and presented with fried Anaheim peppers that spilled sweet potato, quinoa and mascarpone when you cut into them. Marinated pulled pork celebrated garlic, sour orange and heat as much as tender meat.
All of those dishes were eaten when Guillermo Pernot, Cuba Libre’s corporate chef and partner, was helping stir the pots, or at least watching his minions do so. The Argentine native brought serious credentials with him; in 2002, he was honored with two James Beard Foundation Awards, one for his cooking in the Mid-Atlantic, the other for his cookbook, Ceviche! Seafood, Salads and Cocktails With a Latino Twist.” Throw in a Cuban mother-in-law, with whom Pernot says he spent a lot of time chopping and observing, and you’ve got a successful-sounding recipe, right?
Zoom ahead to the here and now. Jason Kaufman, who opened the original in Philadelphia, is on his own in the kitchen. Although Cuba Libre continues to pack in a crowd, my subsequent meals have grown less enticing by the visit.
I can’t be the only diner tired of starting a meal with a briefing, including the usual caveats about the food coming out as it’s done rather than in courses because it’s all meant to be shared. (Really? Isn’t the tactic just a whole lot easier for the kitchen?) The fantasy back story at Cuba Libre: Patrons are told they’ll be eating a style of cooking that might have evolved on the island nation had the country not shifted political gears in the late ’50s.
The crew at Cuba Libre is a knowledgeable and engaging bunch, but I wish the staff would ease up on the sales pitches. “Can I get you started with some sparkling or still water?” one of the servers suggests. “Some rice to sop up those juices?” I was asked when I ordered my entree. Buy a bottle of wine, and it’s poured with such a heavy hand that the contents are nearly drained in the first round for four people. “Another bottle?” comes the next obvious question. To make way for incoming dishes, unfinished plates sometimes are snatched away, which means I can’t relay how the nest of spinach that comes with a batch of empanadas tastes.
I can, however, vouch for those turnovers. They’re flaky and delicious, whether fattened with tender shrimp or tomato-sweetened pulled pork. The empanadas come three to an order in a cute wire fry basket. (Skip the sweet relish.)
Black bean soup balances earthiness with tang, and the bowl comes with an arepa, a soft, grilled white corn cake, on the side. The $8 appetizer is almost a meal. So is another starter, a caveman-size portion of guava barbecue pork ribs. The tender (and sticky) meat, topped with crisp cubes of jicama, drops from the bones. Thoughtfully, the delicious mess shows up with lemons and cloth roll-ups for food-stained fingers.
Astonishingly, the ceviches appear to be made by people who don’t like seafood. How else to explain raw scallops lost in a crumble of goat cheese and a cloak of tomatillo and overused truffles, the seafood so cold as to be mute? Or shrimp doused in what tastes like ketchup with an attitude and garnished with. . . popcorn? The snack looks, and tastes, like a mistake. Guacamole is flat and cold, ill-served by diced pineapple in the dip and plantain chips that are all crunch and zero flavor.
Main courses fall under contemporary (Nuevos) and traditional (Clasicos) headings. I’ve found highs and lows in both categories. Suntanned Salmon, a hit among the modern choices, gets its name from a sheen of honey and mango on its crisp surface. The fish sits on a plateau of cashew-veined coconut rice, which is circled with a sauce of tamarind and lemon grass that ricochets from sweet to tart in the mouth. Like most of the food here, this is a composition with lots of notes, but in this case, everything tastes in tune.
The opposite is true of arroz con pollo, a “classic medley” of dry chicken and mushrooms, corn, chorizo and beer that inexplicably manages to go down like a combination of leftovers. A lunch offering of mahi-mahi in a straitjacket of crushed plantain chips brings back memories of fish sticks in my grade-school cafeteria. You expect a good Cubano at a place called Cuba Libre. I regret to report that the pressed meat-and-cheese sandwich resembles something an airline might have designed. It’s dull.
The peppery sirloin steak, served at dinner, is anything but. A bed of steamed black kale and fluffy-centered yuca fries keep the dish balanced.
The menu devotes a full page to drinks, and although mojitos get the most attention, I’ve found those cocktails to be light on the fuel. The mai tai is a pleasant surprise; it’s fruity and potent but not too sweet.
Entering Cuba Libre, paved in fake stone and lush with tall plants, is like walking into a big block party in the tropics — or an idealized foreign courtyard a la Disney. Tall street lamps divide bar from dining room, and you half-expect someone to pop out from behind the shuttered windows or appear on one of the slim, wrought-iron balconies that dress the faux second-story residences.
I’ve rarely had a meal here without a side of laryngitis; the owners are trying to address the problem with $30,000 worth of sound absorbers.
Cuba Libre looks like a place for tourists and too often lives down to that archetype.
Chef-partner Guillermo Pernot’s wife, Lucia Delmas Menocal, is the great-great-granddaughter of a former president of Cuba, Aurelio Mario Garcia Menocal.
First Bite review
Tom Sietsema wrote about Cuba Libre for an October 2010 First Bite column.
The biggest surprise at Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) in Washington isn't the backdrop that looks as if it had been shipped in from Havana via Hollywood, with full-scale balconies, a courtyard and the re-creation of a colorful street scene. Nor am I astounded by the clamor, which approximates that of jets taking off; a lot of restaurants operate with a boom these days.
What amazes me most at this 9,000-square-foot import from Philadelphia is the food. Everything I try, I want to order again.
Perhaps that shouldn't be unexpected. Guillermo Pernot is the vision behind the flavors, and if you don't recognize the Argentine native's name, you deserve to have your foodie card taken away for a week. In a single year (2002) Pernot won two James Beard Foundation awards, one for his cooking in the mid-Atlantic, the other for a cookbook he co-authored with Aliza Green, "Ceviche! Seafood, Salads and Cocktails With a Latino Twist" (Running Press, 2001).
The chef is also credited with introducing Philadelphia to nuevo Latino cooking in 1998 with a place called Pasion! (since closed) and comes to this project - a valentine to pre-Castro Havana- with some family support. His mother-in-law, with whom he has cooked at home for years, is Cuban.
Will the piqueos (snacks) taste as good when Pernot hands the kitchen over to his acolyte, executive chef Jason Kaufman, who comes here from the Cuba Libre in Orlando? Let's hope so. Everyone should experience the meatballs as I had them recently: sweet and spicy from their time in a pan with soy, sweet chili and hoisin sauces, but also electrifying when eaten with a bite of the accompanying pickled carrot slaw. Hot, bite-size balls of spinach and garlic bound with eggs and cheese are also irresistible. The fritters arrive with a cool foil of tangy goat cheese dressing.
Entrees are divided into modern and classical ideas, and I discovered treasures in both categories. Jumbo shrimp brushed with a mango glaze are fine on their own but better for being paired with a fried Anaheim pepper stuffed with quinoa, sweet potatoes and mascarpone. Meanwhile, every bite of a main course, spice-rubbed marinated pulled pork, fills the mouth with garlic, sour orange, oregano and heat.
Another eye-opener: a bill that included a 25 percent discount on the food. Pernot calls the opening promotion "a forgiveness for the errors we make." (Full prices went into effect Oct. 15.)
(Oct. 20, 2010)
Tired mojitos get new life at Cuba Libre
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, October 29, 2010
Three things I'm generally not fond of: chain bars with themed decor, endless variations on mojitos and drinking in venues that could double as pavilions at Epcot.
The new Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar at Ninth and H streets has all of this, but the large and vibrant newcomer is anything but the tourist trap I expected.
Let's start with the 9,000-square-foot venue itself, which is supposed to make you think you're whiling away the evening at an outdoor plaza in pre-Castro Cuba. Surrounding the dining room are full-scale facades of houses, complete with large balconies and curtains that flutter in the breeze. Between the curtains and the overhead stage lighting, it looks more like a vintage movie set than a restaurant - you expect Carmen Miranda to come dancing out of the kitchen, singing the theme from "Week-End in Havana."
Cuba Libre, a Philadelphia import that also has locations in Atlantic City and Orlando, is like nothing else in Washington.
But it's easy to forget about kitsch when you're sitting at one of the large, comfortable bar stools or the first-come, first-seated tables for groups. Old-school salsa music plays as the bartenders whip up endless rum cocktails and deliver small plates of rum-glazed pork belly or grilled baby octopus. Everyone around us seems to be holding mojitos in chimney glasses packed full of mint and ice or curvy hurricane glasses garnished with fruit. (Early warning: The bar is loud.)
In your glass: My trepidation about ordering mojitos comes from the fact that they were new and trendy a decade ago, but ensuing years have seen the traditional Cuban cocktail go the way of the Cosmo, dumbed down with an endless parade of flavored rums and recipes that have little to do with the original. (That many bartenders hate the time-consuming process of muddling limes and tearing fresh mint into the glass has hastened its demise.) But I've found little to dislike on Cuba Libre's extensive cocktail menu. I think this comes down to the ingredients: Cuba Libre's house rums - spiced, white, five years old - are made by the Demerara distillery in Guyana, which also produces the full-bodied El Dorado rums. The restaurant has its own sugar cane press to extract sweet juice, known as guarapo, instead of using some tasteless commercial sugar-water mixture. And the mint coating the inside of your glass is Cuban-style hierbabuena, which has a sweeter, more mild taste than the spearmint that so many other bars use.
The traditional mojito here is better than most bars, but it's just one of 14 choices. Much better are the versions made with the dark, almost orangey Pyrat XO rum, the guava mojito, which adds guava nectar for a tropical punch, or the grilled pineapple, which adds smoked pineapple puree to the house white rum. (The curious can try the strangely compelling beet-and-basil mojito, which tastes rich, tangy and nothing at all like a mojito.)
Mojitos make up only about a third of the menu, which covers all the bases with rum runners, mai tais and hurricanes. Skip the frozen drinks and head for the caipirinhas. The house-infused mango and papaya cachaca, served over muddled limes, goes down almost too easily - a problem when it's served in a glass that seems no bigger than a Dixie cup. A caipirinha made with fresh ginger, mint and honey tastes like summer.
If you're not looking for rum drinks, the bar makes a tasty white sangria with pears and sugar cane syrup and frothy pisco sours. There's a good list of Spanish and Mexican beers (Alhambra, Estrella).
The only caveat: It's not all exactly made-to-order every time. On some nights, the Cuba Libre Especial (five-year-old rum, cola, lime) is muddled fresh, and other times I've watched bartenders pour pre-mixed drinks that were sitting in pitchers behind the bar. As for those mojitos: When it's busy, cocktail shakers are pre-loaded with mint and guarapo, waiting only for the rum and a splash of soda that are added when you order.
On your plate: If you're sharing at the bar, consider the Chicharrones de la Casa, a plate of chorizo, steak, crispy chicken, pork and yuca and plantains. Much of the menu is small plates - a nod, the owners say, to Washington's tapas habit.
Price points: Mojitos are $9 to $11, with most right at $10. Beers are about $6 each. Appetizers cost $5-$6, with larger plates for two at $11-$13. There is no cover charge.
Nice to know: Once the restaurant has settled in, it will begin offering late-night salsa dancing on weekends. (The "balcony" over the bar holds a secret DJ booth.) Look for the fun to begin in about two months.
What people are saying: "I'd recommend this for drinks after work," says Kei Miller, a 29-year-old marketing manager from Rockville who was enjoying a pomegranate mojito at the bar with friends. "The mojitos are really refreshing. And it's a very eclectic group of people here."
"The ambiance is very nice," adds Traci Betancourt, a 37-year-old event planner. "It's different; it's very cute. The bar size is great, and the tables are good for groups - that's essential for this area. People like happy hour."
Kalima Shakoor of Rockville has been here three times and already recommended Cuba Libre to her friends. "It's a good place to come if you're on a first date," the 29-year-old says. "The setting, the low lights, there are good people in here - it's really awesome."