Tom Sietsema: Free to be brash and loud, Cuba Libre needs more flavor

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 30, 2011; W

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 Cuba Libre in Philadelphia, (there are also spinoffs in Atlantic City and Orlando), 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 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.


One star (Satisfactory)

Cuba Libre

801 Ninth St. NW. 202-408-1600.

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 4 to 11 p.m. daily; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Major credit cards accepted. Valet after 5 p.m. $12.

Metro: Chinatown/Gallery Place.

Prices: Appetizers $5 to $12.50, lunch entrees $12 to $16.50; dinner entrees $16 to $26.50.

Sound check: 83 decibels/Extremely loud.

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