I have serious beef with bad mojitos. The animosity is rooted in a few too many Happy Hour specials of horrible house rum and lime mix, some bitter, waxy mint leaves force-muddled in. To this day, I remain highly skeptical when someone offers me one. It’s why when I was told that mojitos were the signature drink at Cuba Libre, a restaurant notorious around D.C. for its over-the-top “movie set” recreation of an Old Havana street scene, complete with three-dimensional facades, balconies, windows and arched entranceways, my first reaction was to spring for a Stella. I ended up caving and ordering a Grilled Pineapple Mojito.
My eyebrows popped right up, wrinkling my brow, after the first sip. Real smooth white rum. Fresh lime juice and a tad of soda for carbonation. Mint leaves left un-mashed with the bitter stems removed. Sugarcane juice (instead of sugar) freshly squeezed through the guarapa-juicer they keep upstairs. And that pineapple puree with all the nutty, caramelized sweetness and edge of grill-licked fresh fruit. I’m rarely surprised at the quality of drinks at a given restaurant as I usually know what I’m walking into from the price, the lighting, the look on the bartender’s face when I specify I want Bluecoat gin. But I must admit I was severely off this time in expecting a mediocre mojito. I saw that there was a long list of flavors and I immediately envisioned some disillusioned bartender mashing mint leaves and crystal sugar into a sad mixture of bottled pineapple and mango juices. Instead I got a well-crafted, tasty, sweet but not sugary fruit mojito with just the right booze to not booze ratio and shaken until the flavors blended perfectly.
I knew I was in for a good meal, or at least a decent one. Creative yet authentic, if not 100% classically grandma-style Cuban.
A basket of toasted Cuban bread came to the table first, alongside a perfect sphere of mango butter, which had the shade of a yellowing leaf in autumn speckled with little red dots. I could barely keep from eating it all before even ordering appetizers. The bread was buttery and delicious, the real Cuban thing similar in shape to a French baguette but somehow fattier and more satisfying in its crispiness when pressed. Maybe it has something to do with traditionally being made with lard rather than butter. Maybe this one was just made with extra butter… The smooth surface of the bread tightens when toasted and a few taps on it reveals an echo of crackling sound. Awesome. The butter seems to be a Cuba Libre favorite and is certainly something to be proud of. Silky smooth in consistency with the refreshing flavor of ripe mango, brought to an autumnal, pumpkin pie comfort level by the addition of cinnamon. Some black pepper curbed the sweetness of the butter and lead it back into a savory direction. The bread basket seems to be a crowd-pleaser and the kitchen seems very generous with how much of it they send out (more if it gets cold). Indeed, the mango butter outshone even some of the entrees, in my opinion.
A great starter to share is their Guacamole Cubano. The avocado is mixed in with cubes of tart pineapple, some fresh lime juice and olive oil. It is served with crunchy, thinly-sliced plantain chips which curl madly in many directions making it a challenge to a break a piece that can both pick up the spread and fit in one’s mouth…which makes it fun. The avocado was also quite good, although I like to keep my guacamole on the garlicky, savory side instead of the sweet, fruity one. Nonetheless, I’m sure fresh pineapple in there is someone’s cup of tea…
One of our most dazzling dishes was the Grilled Baby Octopus. The menu says it was marinated in citrus and truffle, but I think this may be outdated since I (thankfully!) didn’t taste too much truffle oil. The citrus was there though, along with heat from some chili powder – perhaps cayenne. Flavorwise the dish was dominated by the colorful little Greek salad serving as the bed for the baby octopi to sit on. A fine micro-chop of cucumber, some tangy, crumbly, feta-type cow’s milk cheese, a few slices of purple kalamata olive. There were also some delightfully delicate cherry tomatoes which were skinned like a grape to achieve a squishy, moist texture and the roasted flavor carried through the preparation. Taken all in one bite with the octopus, the dish had plenty of flavor. The texture of the baby octopus was okay too, not overcooked or rubbery though a tad chewy just by the undeniable nature of these suckers.
My favorite dish of the night were frituras de malanga, apparently a pretty popular street food snack in Cuba. The Malanga Fritters were golden-brown fried balls of taro, some garlic and West Indian culantro (similar to cilantro but with a slightly stronger flavor). They were served with a thick, brownish-orange tamarind ketchup to dip in. The malanga was an awesome filling inside the crunchy coating – the starchy puree turned soft when combined with egg and fried, similar to the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes. So a crackling, oil-licked toasted exterior greeted the teeth, followed by a smooth, thick starch paste tasting of garlic and herb mixing with the tangy, sweet-and-sour chutney flavor of the tamarind ketchup coating the crust. Next time I go, I will order just these as a snack paired with a mojito (or two…or three…)
Next up, the Grilled Mushroom Salad of three different types of seasonal fung grilled, marinated in a citrus escabeche and chilled. It’s good. Cold, which for some reason was surprising to me, but refreshing and very flavorful. The mushrooms had a nice chewy tenderness and maintained their funky, earthy flavor despite the freshness and acidity of the escabeche. A hint of smokey char from the grill also lingered in the background adding a depth which rounded out the dish nicely. The escabeche style of preparation has always intrigued me as it seems to be another one of those techniques used before access to refrigeration. It has always reminded me of ceviche-fying something, keeping it from going bad with the application of acid. In the case of an escabeche, though, the base (most often a fish ) is already grilled or poached before dunking it in citrus. So it actually must be all about adding flavor, despite this surface similarity.
Speaking of cooking and preserving with acid, our next dish was the Crab Ceviche, jumbo lump Maryland crabmeat mixed with a salsa of cubed tomatillo, red onion, cilantro and smoked cheddar cheese. A few candied walnuts were scattered over the top for some crunch. The crabmeat had been marinated (and thus cooked in) lime juice, which gave the entire dish a clean, citrus flavor. I thought the crab was actually a tiny bit over-cooked in the citrus, as the little lumps of tissue had a texture similar to chicken breast and did not fall into those moist little fibers that tangle around your tongue. The salsa was nice and I actually did not mind the cheddar as much as I thought I would, since the crispiness of the tomatillo and onion overtook the creamy texture of the cheese and the hint of sharp, smoky flavor was pretty nice amidst all of the acidity. The crunchy walnuts added a good textural contrast, though the sweet, caramelized nuttiness didn’t really make sense in this dish as there was already an outlying, crazy ingredient (cheddar) to make it a variation on the classic ceviche I love so much. I suggest popping out these little nuts and sticking them on your dessert a bit later.
My dinner companion’s favorite dish was the Camagüey Meatballs, a type of albondigas popular in the city of Camagüey, Cuba. They were made very close to the classic way: a mix of beef, pork and pine nut served in a sweet-and-sour guava-based glaze. This one also came with a light slaw of pickled carrots. I did quite enjoy these meatballs, though I don’t remember tasting too much pine nut in the flavor profile; maybe these were added more for texture. The mixture of meats stayed nice and moist and had a peppery undertone which contrasted the mellow sweetness of the pork in there. There was also a hint of nuttiness not from the pine nuts but, I think, from the Cuban bread that the kitchen must have used as a binder (along with the classic egg and milk) for these little balls. The glaze was nice too, an Asian fusion thing with soy, sesame oil and white wine vinegar, along with the classic guava puree BBQ sauce served with these meatballs in Camagüey. The julienned carrots with their very light pickle were nice, adding a crunchy, fresh texture to the warm, mushy meat.
A dish I knew would be a little dumb when I first heard it described was the Cuban Sandwich Spring Rolls. Little bits pork loin marinated in orange, some salami, ham, provolone and Swiss stuffed into a crispy wonton wrapper and fried. Served with white-hot Chinese mustard and a really spicy slaw of cabbage and carrot tossed, I think, in the same mustard. The poor Cuban sandwich has suffered so many effects of creative license in restaurant kitchens lately! It’s almost approaching the taco in this regard. And while I have nothing bad to say about the occasional air-Cubano, an attempt at surface fusion like this makes me feel sort of awkward and uncomfortable just in principle. Plus, it wasn’t really executed too well either. The fried wrapper was too thick and turned chewy in some parts, which took all attention off the filling. I couldn’t really taste the subtle hint of orange in the loin because the heat of the mustard overpowered it. If there were other meats stuffed in there I really couldn’t make them out too well and the cheese just kind of glued everything together instead of adding flavor. Next time, I’ll pass on this one and ask them to make a real Cuban sandwich with their wonderful house bread.
A good dish to have after a few too many mojitos, I’m sure, is the Papas Rellenas. These are basically lightly fried Cuban potato croquettes filled with beef picadillo, sitting on a sweet and spicy guajillo pepper sauce and drizzled with a Manchego crema. Crispy fried onion strings top it. The concept behind this is taking an empanada de carne (random, awkward green olive and all) and making it into a croquette; a lightly fried, crispy exterior covering a mushy, starchy layer of mashed potato wrapped around a minced beef filling. The balls are slathered with two sauces – the slightly spicy, smoky red guajillo chili and a creamy, cheesey, nothing-but-salty Manchego sauce. The onion strings are a bit absurd as a topping to something which is already so indulgent. Although still technically a tapa, finishing this one plate would’ve been enough for me for the night.
Dessert at Cuba Libre seemed like a course not to miss out on, so I tried two. First, the Banana Bread Pudding, with chocolate chips and ripe banana made, again, with the Cuban house bread. The bread pudding was topped with party-sized cubes of roasted pineapple. On the bottom there was a pool of spiced rum glaze. I thought this was a very well-balanced dish. The bread pudding was not too sweet on its own, relying heavily on the natural sweetness in the bananas rather than added sugar. Dragging a forkful of the stuff through the gooey, thick rum sauce added a nice oaky sweetness and moisture to the sticky surface of the pudding. The hint of caramelization and acidity of the grilled pineapples contrasted well with the flavors of the rum. I’m glad the pineapple was grilled, as adding fresh chunks would have perhaps been almost too fresh, swinging this otherwise warm and cozy dessert into too much of a light, fresh direction which in this case just wasn’t desired.
Next up, the Tres Leches, a vanilla-flavored sponge cake soaked in three different types of milk all flavored with dulce de leche, and topped with a mocha mousse. After almost a year of living in Argentina I thought I would never eat dulce de leche again unless physically forced to do so. I discovered through this dish that – to my great surprise! – I love and miss the deep, golden caramel flavor of d.d.l. The milks were saturated with the characteristic flavor of the latter and the cake was saturated with the milks, becoming mushy yet not soggy, moist but spongy, with just enough bounce. The bittersweet mocha “mousse” was okay, though the texture reminded me of the fake, sugar-flavored sugar frosting piped onto Disney Princess themed birthday cakes from chain bakeries. Otherwise, I appreciated that it was mocha in flavor and not just plain chocolate, as the bitter tang of espresso beans in there rounded out the caramel sweetness of the milks and brought the meal to a tasty close. By the way, did you know that the reason tres leches cake does not get soggy is because no egg is used and so air bubbles form, which can then be saturated with milk? I didn’t either until just a few minutes ago…
I don’t think there is anything wrong with a dash of gimmick when it comes to getting the general public to try out a cuisine they otherwise have little access to. Getting into Cuba is still pretty tough these days for the average gringo, and the bright neon-pink light of Miami beckons spring breakers with promises of $4 margaritas, forever leading them away from juicy pan con lechón and crunch-tastic buñuelos at abuelo’s Cuban eatery down the road. If it takes a little creativity, a little chili-speckled mango butter to get people to start talking about Cuban bread, so be it. If it takes experimentation with fusion to get people excited, then do it, but take care not to offend anyone. If it takes a little cheddar to get people eating raw fish cooked in lime juice, I certainly have no problem with that. As long as the mojitos are delicious and real and don’t give me a sugar-and-rail-rum induced migraine the next morning… Not so at Cuba Libre.