By Elana Schor - 12/02/10 12:50 AM EST
Most diners can recognize major tastes in the culinary world: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Yet there is a fifth taste, an elusive but chemically proven element that gives bacon its smoke and chips their snap — umami.
It may sound like an obscure Japanese snack food, but umami is revered by both foodies and scientists for its complexity. The heady tang of ripe tomato is umami, as is the musty succulence of fine melted cheese. And although its menu is listed en español rather than with Asian characters, the standout dishes at new Penn Quarter hotspot Cuba Libre are pure umami.
Consider the boquerones, an unconventional salad of diced, marinated anchovies, cucumber, tomatoes and olives in a fragrant herbal vinaigrette. Or the smoked duck, a delicate pinwheel of intense cured meat topped with crunchy corn salsa and an earthy drizzle of huitlacoche sauce. Both are redolent of umami, teasing rich notes out of simple ingredients, and both leave the starchy stereotype of chewy ropa vieja, one of Cuba’s best-known dishes, in the dust.
Indeed, the kitchen’s design and execution consistently outpaces the decor that surrounds it. Cuba Libre is boisterous and clubby, with faux-classical balconies and saloon-style doors fit for a Rita Hayworth movie, but its memorable menu surmounts the trappings.
“I feel like I’m in Vegas Cuba, or Epcot Cuba,” my companion said — minutes before falling silent as she tucked into a silky pan of perfect black-rice paella teeming with plump clams and mussels. Dinner at Cuba Libre is both over-the-top and satisfying, with effortless service and a well-designed slate of dishes in all sizes.
Size does matter when ordering from the six-part menu. Along the left side of the page are tapas-style plates that easily make a meal when ordered in threes, as one might at a nearby Jose Andres-helmed spot. The biggest winners there are the spinach-manchego puffs, emerald bombs that melt on the tongue, and the refreshing pesto-grilled shrimp. The guacamole is well-mixed but carries an intense fruity note from its minced pineapple.
On the right side of the menu are Pernot’s famous ceviches and bigger appetizers, where the giant sampler plate of braised and grilled meats is ruled by shockingly lean chorizo and pork masitas so tender they fall apart on the fork. The empanadas are also memorable, particularly the pulled pork with charred tomatoes,. The Fire and Ice ceviche is a narrow winner among the stellar and unique raw-fish plates.
In fact, the first courses at Cuba Libre are so appealing — the arepa alone carries two different types of tangy meats along with a nutty corn crema and spiky romesco sauce — that moving on to the entrees may seem unnecessary. One shouldn’t be afraid to make a meal without them, but Pernot’s takes on Cuban staples are worth saving room for.
Try the salmon in honey-mango glaze, its seemingly simple sweetness tempered by a lip-smacking lemongrass sauce, and advise vegetarian friends to embrace the quirky marriage of sweet plantain and cauliflower that brightens a tamale bathed in thick coconut-milk. The arroz con pollo, or rice with chicken, is another highlight, its moisture derived from glugs of Presidente beer in the pan alongside delicate wild mushrooms and crisped peppers.
If the din of the crowded bar has not reached a lull by the time your fork tumbles from its last bite of yucca fries or spicy onion rings — battered so densely that they cannot be eaten by hand — consider joining the crowds and mingling for a while. The scene is rip-roaring for a reason — 14, to be exact, the number of mojitos on offer. The tangy cocktails compete with stronger Brazilian caipirinhas and tall frozen drinks in the traditional colada-daiquiri vanguard that the bar also has on its menu.
There are beers and sangria to be had as well, but the mojitos at Cuba Libre are distinctive enough to try at least once. They employ hierba buena mint and feather-light raw sugarcane, or guarapo, the key ingredient in mojitos before they turned trendy and cloying from typical white sugar.
The classic and mango varieties are predictably good, but the grilled pineapple and beet-basil types are knockouts. Both bridge sweetness and savoriness in ways unmatched by most of the city’s artisan mixologists, coming as close to umami in a glass as the spiciest Bloody Mary.
Those inspired to nosh between rounds of cocktails, however, are advised to grab a table lest their last bite of garlicky plantain patties be swiped or knocked over by the flirtatious crowds. The no-kids-allowed rule and dress recommendation on weekend nights reflects just how jumping the social scene can be inside Cuba Libre’s partitioned bar area.
For the hours when under-21s are permitted, however, a meal would not be complete without one of Pernot’s potent desserts. The tres leches perches fluffy chocolate-banana mousse atop the usual pile of white cake, its gorgeous texture matched only by the creamy crown of caramel-topped flan that comes paired with red fruits, worlds away from the Jell-O-like versions too often found in otherwise impressive Latin restaurants.
The desserts may not have the umami that marks the rest of the menu, but they represent the cheesy, sincere heart of Cuba Libre. The place just wants you to have a good time — and won’t rest until you do.