By Kate Oczypok - 11/17/10 10:18 PM EST
Walking in, you can’t help but gaze upward at the banisters and curtains fluttering above Cuba Libre’s diners or chuckling at the old-fashioned saloon doors next to the bathroom. You can imagine Frank Sinatra crooning from the balcony or Nat King Cole hanging out at the bar. It’s almost as if you’re about to walk into a movie scene at MGM Studios in Hollywood.
Cuba Libre is perfect for sitting at a bar and sipping a classic mojito. The cocktail’s Cuban origin makes it the perfect complement to the restaurant’s tres ceviches. If you’re with a large group, be sure to taste the “carne de Cangrejo,” jumbo lump Maryland crab meat, smoked cheddar cheese, tomatillos and candied peanut salsa.
Cuba Libre has locations in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Orlando. D.C.’s location, which opened Oct. 1, has an expanded small plates selection to accommodate the area’s interest in sharing and sampling many different dishes.
Try the hummus de frijol negro (black bean hummus, olive oil and smoked paprika), berejana Haitiana (roasted eggplant spread) and fin de verano (grape tomatoes, seedless cucumbers, black olive salpicon). All three, and everything on Cuba Libre’s menu, boast the talents and vision of executive chef and James Beard award-winner Guillermo Pernot, whose mother-in-law hails form the island nation.
If you’re looking to spice things up, try the chino-glazed beef, pork and pine nut meatballs. While I had them served with a hot pickled carrot soup, Cuba Libre traditionally serves them with a carrot slaw. They’re definitely spicy enough to add a little warmth to the upcoming cold winter months.
Main dishes include a paella nueva with pan-roasted mahi-mahi shrimp, clams, mussels and squid for “forbidden” black rice. Much of the seafood in the dish is dyed with squid ink. A particular favorite and traditionally Cuban dish is the lechon asado, a slow-roasted marinated pulled pork and Cuba Libre rum-glazed pork belly. The pork plate is accented with Amarillo chile smashed yuca, sour orange mojo and black bean broth and a Vigoron slaw. You might want to switch to Cuba Libre’s pineapple mojitos while eating the pork, as it is spicy enough to warrant a refreshing beverage to sip.
Save room for dessert, especially if you’re a fan of bananas and coconut. Tres leches de banana cake, a vanilla sponge cake soaked in three banana flavored milks and topped with chocolate banana mousse and a caramelized banana is a Cuban-style cupcake. Tocino del Cielo, a traditional Cuban flan, is served with a vanilla cookie nestled comfortably in the smooth custard. Finally, Pernot’s mother-in-law, Mami Totty, has a recipe that made Cuba Libre’s menu. The arroz con leche, or classic Cuban rice pudding, is a cool, light ending to a spicy, flavorful meal.
Cuba Libre is open for lunch and dinner and also offers happy hour. For more information, visit www.cubalibrerestaurant.com