Friday, August 23, 2013

Cuba Libre Food Review

Perhaps it was The Godfather Part II, or Beyoncé & Jay-Z's recent "cultural" holiday... Whatever it is, I've always had a longing to visit our neighbor to the South, Cuba. Without digging out my long-expired Irish passport (note to self: time to renew) I have to consider viable alternatives: Until yesterday, I couldn't find anything suitable. Then along came my brother Brian, who recommended we lunch at Cuba Libre. Lucky for both of us, the unofficial king of 9th Street dining was celebrating Restaurant Week. Havana, here we come.

Restaurant Week rocks: $20.13 for a three-course stunner is a steal of a deal, especially at Cuba Libre. You could charge half that amount for admission alone: Cuba Libre ought to qualify as a tourist attraction... That's how nice it looks. Granted, it's in a Las Vegas tribute sort of way; but it's gorgeous nonetheless. High ceilings, sensible spacing and dozens of well-executed, often overlooked details (comfortable bar stools... what a concept!) make this one of DC's best looking eateries.

Cuba Libre Chicharrones

Service was professional and for the most part, fairly stellar. We had reservations for 12:30, yet still had to sit at the bar for almost five minutes (slight deduction) but the staff couldn't have been nicer. We were seated close to the front door; but the setup is done in a such a way, that you think you're tucked into a quiet corner. Spacing between tables is generous (and much appreciated.) Our server was very sweet, and seemed excited to discover this was our first visit.

Mamá Amelia’s Empanadas & dessert duo

The menu here is quite extensive, and even Restaurant Week allowed a choice of three Aperitivos and six Favoritos in addition to a pairing of desserts. There's also a plethora of drink options, although the menu doesn't highlight non-alcoholic choices. My server recommended a Ginger beer (5 bucks) which turned out to be pretty nice: Brian (fun-lover that he is) ordered a Mojito. Our appetizers arrived pretty quickly, beating our drinks to the table by at least 2-3 minutes (odd.)

Said appetizers (black bean soup for my brother) were a smash! My Chicharrones arrived beautifully arranged and diverse in flavor and texture. Chicken, chorizo, pork belly and steak followed a malanga fritter... topped off by a delicious fried plantain and a jalapeno pepper dressed in mojo picante, that transcended my chorizo into another stratosphere.

Unfortunately, it seemed like an eternity between our first and second courses (about 15 minutes) despite a relatively light lunch crowd. Thankfully, our entrees were served with dessert... eliminating any more anxiety (gotta get back to work, you know.) A pair of empanadas arrived in a curious mini fry basket, along with a wonderful Ají sour cream dipping sauce and some greens. Sadly, I couldn't sample the salad, since my server forgot to replace my cutlery after clearing away my app. Empanadas are low maintenance (street food) and were cool to the touch, despite hot interiors. The beef, olive and raisin option was delicious; but the pulled pork, roasted poblano and charred tomatoes proved a poor texture inside its crunchy exterior.

Check please!

I like the idea of two desserts, but neither stuck out... unless you consider an overly moist Tres Leches, which lived up to its "soaked" moniker. More sweetness, por favor. Your check arrives in a Cuban cigar box (cute idea) and a set price avoided any unpleasant surprises (although the price of drinks never ceases to amaze me.) Our server chatted us up, and suggested we come back for Tapas Tuesdays (all-you-can-eat tapas for just $26.95 per person.) I'm already salivating at the idea.

Service was solid overall, but a long wait between courses and a missed opportunity by any of four hosts to say good-bye (despite my pausing, to look back) leaves room for improvement. I can't wait to write about my next visit... How long until Tuesday???