Fill in the blank: Cuban______.
What did you come up with? Cigars? Sandwich? Missile crisis? Yeah, me too. When I think of the country, not much comes to mind beside the aforementioned items and everyone's favorite dictator. There is a group of restaurateurs that hopes the limited knowledge of Cuba and its cuisine is about to change. Cuba Libre, the newest Penn Quarter (projected) hot spot, opened early this week serving “nuevo Latino” food and cocktails to the overflowing crowds.
Walking into the restaurant feels a bit like walking into another world. The salsa beats pulsate throughout the restaurant, which features stained glass, cobblestones and re-creations of Havana buildings. Once inside, one can almost forget the corporate neon world of Chinatown that resides just outside.The menu re-imagines Cuban food by wondering what could have developed if the embargo had never taken place and flavors from other parts of the globe had made their way into the cuisine. You will find influences from places as far flung as St. Louis, Spain, and even China. Each dish brings something a little different to the table while managing to remain true to what the Cubans know and love.
There were three of us at the table, so we were able to try a fairly wide variety of menu items. Our waiter suggested that we go with a few piqueos (small tasting plates) to start and then each order an entree. Two of the three hit the mark, while one completely failed. The guacamole with fresh pineapple was outstanding, but didn’t quite sing the song of the original. All three of us really liked the Cesar de oriente, which was a crispy spring roll that was filled with short rib and served with a small Caesar salad. I was skeptical about the flavors coming together, but they absolutely did. And although the executive chef at Cuba Libre is known for his ceviches, the salmon one we had was far too sweet for it’s own good.
For our entrees, we chose extremely different dishes. I chose to try the arepa rellena (one of the larger appetizers), which was a corn cake filled with spiced short ribs and mozzarella cheese. Elliot couldn’t resist the paella neuva which had mahi-mahi, clams and mussels atop black rice. Our friend chose to try the camarones con cana, which contained the interesting mix of shrimp, bbq glaze, spicy peppers, sweet potato, and Mascarpone. Unfortunately, we waited almost 45 minutes for our food to come out, putting a damper on everything before even taking a bite. The hit of the evening was absolutely the arepa rellena. Each of the flavors came together to create a delicate balance on the plate and on the tastebuds. According to Elliot, the paella was a bit of a mess. By the time the dish made it to our table, the rice had become incredibly gloppy and the mahi-mahi was totally overcooked. The mussels were unimpressive and the clams in the dish blended in so well with the smoky rice that they were rendered tasteless. No complaints about the camarones, but it was not quite the out of the park home run that had been hoped for.
Dessert, on the other hand, was outstanding. Our waiter suggested the tres leches de banana as well as the arroz con leche (rice pudding). Needless to say, he did not steer us wrong. The tres leches embodied all the subtleties of the banana without bringing up memories of Willy Wonka’s Runts. Rice pudding is something fairly mundane, but the pastry chef at Cuba Libre was able to turn it into something so much more. The rice had been cooked perfectly and held hints of vanilla, caramel and other aromatics.
You can’t go to Cuba without talking about rum, and the same holds true at this DC outpost. Cuba Libre features over 75 different types of rum, which was unfathomable to me until I saw each of them behind the bar. Bartenders also take said rum and make it into some pretty fantastic mojitos. We tried the traditional and the passion fruit versions and both were outstanding. Although I may not come back to eat in the dining room, I certainly could see myself at the bar having a cocktail and munching on some plantain chips... and probably saving room for dessert. Hopefully, in time, the outpost will learn to grow beyond its early shortcomings and become a little mas libre.
Note: All food served 4-11pm now through October 7 is 50% off, and from Oct 8-13 it is 25% off.