The cozy quarters in Chestnut Hill have an appealing Latin look, but the food falls short on some fundamentals.

Posted: October 05, 2008

Like the sons of other Cuban exiles, Miguel Castañeda Lorente has a compelling story to tell, and an obvious passion for his ancestral island.

You sense that connection the moment you step into the handsome storefront dining room of ¡Cuba!, his five-month-old BYOB. Its moodily distressed walls and intimate rooms are hung with vibrant Latin art. The soundtrack bops to a Buena Vista Social Club kind of mood, and on Fridays the music is live. This cozy space could very well be a slice of Old Havana until you look through the bistro's picture window, where there's a vision of Old Philly instead: the postcard-quaint train station atop Chestnut Hill.

Still, I could imagine Castañeda's parents here on a visit from Brooklyn recounting their amazing tales of escape from Castro's revolution. The stolen midnight plane to Miami. The friend's betrayal that left his father shot and nearly dead. It feels like they'd belong, because this lovely spot exudes a familial warmth.

In fact, Castañeda runs it with his own 24-year-old son, Michael. The only thing missing to complete the circle of this roots homage is a kitchen worthy of the journey. (Unfortunately, that's kind of important.)

Castañeda, 45, spent his career in tech support for the airline industry before embarking on ¡Cuba!, his first restaurant venture. But as someone who grew up around authentic Cuban food - his parents ran a butcher shop and neighborhood restaurant in the Bronx - he makes a crucial mistake. It's the presumption that good ethnic home-cooking can't fly in Chestnut Hill without an ambitious young American chef to give it the high-rent-district makeover.

"This [menu] is what you'd get at the Havana Yacht Club," says Castañeda, "or what it might have been had the situation been different."

Unfortunately, the young chefs to whom Castañeda has entrusted this lofty mission (already his second kitchen crew) don't yet have the chops to carry it off - they can hardly even cook black beans.

My first bowl of bean soup here was lukewarm. The second bowl was heated but missing much Latin heart, its soffrito backbone so weak that the flavors barely had a pulse. Decent black beans are Cuban 101. This didn't bode well.

The 25- and 26-year-old best friends and former White Dog cooks who are running their first kitchen here as "co-executive chefs" have never worked with Cuban food before. But they aim to serve contemporary versions of authentic dishes, one told me, "not bastardized like Alma de Cuba or Cuba Libre."

Actually, these guys at ¡Cuba! need to work on some basics - like seasoning with salt - before calling out Nuevo Latino gods like Douglas Rodriguez and Guillermo Pernot. The modern improvisations of those masters work because they're rooted in a deep understanding of tradition.

But at ¡Cuba!, the traditional flavors don't go nearly deep enough, or far enough beyond, to really merit the prices. Is a simple plate of pulled roast pork shoulder, pernil asado, worth $24 because it comes with a squishy, underseasoned tamale and over-pickled green beans? Ay-yay-yay! Bacalao is traditionally rehydrated salt cod in a piquant tomato sauce. But it loses its funk in a goofy rendition here with fresh cod, a small fillet over dry, parboiled rice beneath a lurid yellow mango cream and a handful of shrimp so tiny and chewy they were hardly worth the flourish.

The croquetas de boniato were wrong not only because they were made with regular orange sweet potatoes instead of boniatos, Caribbean white yams ("We couldn't find them," one co-chef said, ". . . actually, we never looked"). They were so starchy it was like eating deep-fried bars of orange paste.

There were a few highlights. A special appetizer of grilled whole calamari, stuffed with cuminy chorizo, came over tangy greens and a tropical puree of papaya and roast poblanos. A strange version of arroz a la chorrera essentially twisted arroz con pollo into creamy chicken risotto. It was out of place on this Latin menu, but had a subtle charm, a welcome bite of richness and textural contrasts between fresh veggies, crisp bacon, and tender cubes of meat.

The fritas de picadillo were just the kind of clever update to traditional flavors this kitchen aspires to, open-faced "Cuban sliders" of ground picadillo meat (piqued with olives, capers and raisins) atop tostones beneath a dollop of green olive tapenade. If only the fried plantains hadn't been so thick and dry, it would have been perfect.

I also liked the ropa vieja, though the portion was small for such a hearty peasant dish, and the gluey yuca puree needs work (hint: Avoid the food processor with starchy root vegetables). The tender shreds of tomatoey braised brisket and peppers, though, were evocative of what soulful Cuban home cooking can be, the gravy's tangy sweetness layered with piquance and an echo of spice. A garlicky bistec encebollado, meanwhile, might have been the best entree of all, the skirt steak's charry crust and juicy pink meat sided with tangy-sweet caramelized onions and an earthy blend of black beans and rice called moros y cristianos.

Too many other promising dishes, though, fell short on execution. The seviche brought a bountiful margarita glass of seafood festooned with fried plantain wings, but the sleepy orange marinade lacked the citric zip and basic seasoning to bring the shrimp and calamari to life. A cold gazpacho of cucumbers and pineapples had the opposite effect, so heavy-handed on the spice that it tasted like pureed salsa.

A couple of entrees, meanwhile, were just not ready for prime time. The roast chicken was as dry and boring as standard diner fare. The stuffed chayote squash was the right idea for a Caribbean veggie dish, but the chunky stuffing of al dente carrots, onions and green plantains seemed to be mixed with undiluted tomato paste.

The house-made desserts were also a letdown, though the coconut flan had more creamy comfort to offer than the stiff, heat-bubbled custard of the usual flan. The best bets are the ice creams made by Vince Amico in Trenton, including a potent rum raisin and an addictive coconut studded with chocolate-covered nuts.

The staff at ¡Cuba! does its best to present the menu with enthusiasm, though they bordered on over-earnest as each dish was described down to "the smatterings" of spice "for warmth, not for heat." Given that eagerness, I was surprised by our server's reluctance to make a cafe con leche.

"It's not on the menu," she sighed, ". . . but I can make one."

No cafe con leche at a place named ¡Cuba!? It's not the only essential piece missing at this otherwise promising place.

Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Nicholas in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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