Taking Comfort in Cuban Tradition
Friday, September 16, 2005
THERE ARE some cuisines that are so inherently comforting that the word "homestyle" almost seems redundant. Cuba de Ayer, one of the best Cuban restaurants to grace the Washington area in a long time, is a first-rate mom-and-pop kitchen that sends out good food not as some sort of achievement, but simply because, as mothers in all cultures say, what's worth doing is worth doing well.
A simple but attractive shoebox, painted a deep rust and hung with pictures of the antique cars that are a Havana hallmark, Cuba de Ayer is all about comfort food. A true homesick restaurant, it wears its heart on its sleeve, or at least on its marquis. "Ayer" means yesterday, i.e., the old days, and this mom-and-pop establishment makes old family favorites in the traditional style, without fuss or frill. Most of the dishes will be familiar to patrons of other Cuban establishments; it's just that Cuba de Ayer makes such good versions.
Ropa vieja , the popular shredded beef ("old clothes") stewed with sweet peppers, onions and garlic, is superb, richly flavored and cooked so tenderly it falls into threads as fine as fiberglass. Picadillo , a kind of ground beef hash with potatoes, raisins and green olives, is a subtle mix of fruit and spice, beef being the object of desire here.
Arroz con pollo , the classic yellow rice and baked chicken, seems to have only the slightest acquaintance with olive oil. The other chicken dish, a fricassee of wine, olives and potatoes, is only one degree more assertively flavored; the chicken is completely in control.
The lechon asado , roast pork, is a classic, marinated in citrus and caramelized onions; the bistec palomilla , thin-sliced marinated steak pan-fried with almost equally soft onions, has a subtle tang of vinegar. The fried (sauteed, not battered) sweet plantains serve as relish, palate cleanser and dessert all in one; they're so good it's hard to leave room for even the classic white cheese and guava.
The truly fried items -- the yuca, the green plantain disks and the superlative, lightly sugared beef empanadas in admirable pastry -- are so nearly greaseless it's hard to believe they're not diet-friendly. Ham croquettes are so smoothly ground they can, and are, popped into sandwiches; and the papa rellena , beef-stuffed and lightly breaded potatoes, are like a cross between shepherd's pie and a samosa.
The food at Cuba de Ayer is not particularly spicy: The influence is Spanish, not Caribbean, and the seasonings are on the gentle side, with the occasional exception of garlic -- and even that's pretty restrained. The single exception is the camarones al ajillo , the shrimp in garlic sauce; the dish was also the single disappointment, cooked far too long and oversalted.
Nor is the food saucy. The chicken and meats are deeply imbued with flavor but served almost dry. (That incidentally serves to show how carefully the plain white rice is prepared, whereas in some places the moros y cristianos , black beans and rice simmered together, seems to get all the attention.) The Cubano sandwich is on the dry side as well, which is meant as a compliment. The bread is good and crunchy, the cheese warmed through but not to the oily point, and the mustard and pickles are just there to complement the ham and that unusually fine (for a "sub," as one little boy called it) roast pork.
Cuba de Ayer is worth searching out, in one of those little block-square strips just west of Route 29. The service is pleasant and prompt; the portions modest but entirely sufficient and bargain-priced. The one caution is that there can be a little confusion about carryout orders, especially when the kitchen is busy; twice we went off without the Cubano sandwich. So count your containers, count all that change and count your blessings.