Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cuba Libre: Unlimited Piqueos Review

So when I heard about an unlimited small plates (piqueos) brunch at Cuba Libre - I had to check it out with the GF. For $26 per person (everyone at the table has to participate), you get to sample from 36 different "small plate" style dishes.

We had been to the Cuba Libre in Atlantic City and were captivated by the Havana-esque atmosphere and design. It's the perfect setup for the late-night dance scene that is created by the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights (dress up and get down!). A nice concept that is done in Philadelphia as well.

The design in the Old City location takes you away to Cuba. There is a bar downstairs with an open space to the left ...

and a bar upstairs as well. The fans hanging above are beautifully designed and adds to the charm of Cuba Libre.

In preparation for the meal, I thought about wearing my Philly Marathon shirt from last year so I wouldn't be judged by how much I had planned on ordering (today was the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon). Then I remembered I had no shame! So on to the meal proper ...

Cava Mojito ($9.50)
Cuba Libre White Rum, hierba Buena, guarapo, fresh lime juice, topped with Cava

I'm not the biggest fan of sweet drinks (e.g. margaritas). But when I do go sweet, I drink mojitos. Typically light, refreshing - they can really hit the spot. And we're in a freakin Cuban restaurant - what else would you order here besides the eponymous Cuba Libre (essentially a Rum & Coke with lime).

This iteration of the drink fell flat though - literally. I assumed that topping the mojito with Cava, which is a sparkling wine, would mean that there would be some refreshing carbonation in the drink. However, I could barely feel any tingle from this tipple. Perhaps the Cava was left open too long .. an unfortunate start to the meal.

But on to the brunch itself ... I've listed the a la carte pricing for those of you who prefer not to be gluttons.
Papas Rellenas ($7.5)
Cuban potato croquettes filled with beef picadillo. Sweet and spicy guajillo pepper sauce. Crispy onions and Manchego crema. 

There was a muted sweetness to this dish. The inner potato was extremely creamy - the outer shell of the croquette was surprisingly not too crispy - quite light. The onion strings that topped the dish were fine, however the big draw back of this dish? The sauce was extremely cold. As if the dish had been left on the 'heat' lamp for a bit too long.

Guacamole Cubano ($6)
Avocado, golden pineapple, fresh lime juice and extra virgin olive oil. Crispy plantain chips.

We had this dish in Atlantic City and it was too much sweetness for this guy to handle. I prefer my guacamole spicy, garlicky, and savory.This rendition was actually not too bad. The sweet, fresh pineapples shined through and the plantain chips were fried crispy, but not greasy and maintained a muted sweetness that was not overbearing.

Buñuelos de Espinaca ($6)
Spinach and Manchego cheese puffs. Goat cheese-ranch sauce and organic olive oil.

This was definitely one of our favorites. The outer shell was crisp and the innards were deliciously creamy and luscious. The salt from the Manchego definitely lingered on the finish, but in a good way. The goat cheese-ranch sauce acted to highlight those same flavors.

Torta de Cangrejo Benedict ($7)
Jumbo lump crabmeat and potato cake, poached egg, avocado mash. Tomato Hollandaise sauce.

This easily could have been one of our favorites as well - had it been warmer. Again - another victim to what was likely a 'heat lamp' issue. Admittedly I had started our brunch by ordering an initial 7 dishes - but our server had graciously split the order into two. Unfortunate ... however, the flavors were there. The crab and potato crab cake was well seasoned and the runny egg? Who doesn't love a good runny egg oozing on through your dish. Here's the money shot ... 

Mejillones Mar y Tierra ($10)
Prince Edward Island mussels, poached in rich lobster broth, roasted garlic, Berkshire pork belly, caramelized onions, steamed kale and slow roasted tomatoes

The GF typically has issues with certain types of cuisine - namely of the textural variety. Thus ... the task of downing these labiacious (yes - I made that up - pretty sure you can understand my meaning however) P.E.I. goodies remained with me. Rich, sweet, and plump - quite typical of this variety. The broth was luxurious and deep - you could taste the briny, yet full flavor. Steamed kale and tomatoes were a nice counterpoint to the high quality pork belly. Berkshire (pork) is to Jidori (chicken) is to Wagyu (beef) in my estimation. Don't get me wrong though, this can be a delightfully, deceivingly heavy dish. As you can see below though, I had no problem finishing it.

Huevo en Cazuela ($7)
Egg poached in Cuban enchilado and goat cheese fondue.

This dish was merely OK when compared to the body of flavors we were experiencing.The enchilado fondue was well-seasoned and had a hint of tang from the goat cheese. The center poached egg was nice - the inner yolk had already hardened by the time we broke through. Nothing to write home about really.

Pulpo con Berenjenas ($7.5)
Truffle and citrus marinated grilled baby octopus, Haitian eggplant salad.

And of course, the GF thought the baby octopi were too cute so she could not suffer through eating them. So the task was left to me.

This was another dish that suffered from being a bit too cold. It was still palatable as the char from grilling the baby octopus shined through. I could not taste the truffle, however. The Haitaian eggplant salad's seasoning tended to overpower the dish.

At this point, the GF was crying 'no mas,' but I had only ordered what I would consider appetizer dishes. It was on to the mains and sides - much of which were left to me as she was saving room for dessert.
One-Eyed Ropa Vieja Hash ($9.5)
Classic Cuban shredded beef brisket stewed with tomatoes, bell peppers, and red wine on a hash of Yukon gold potatoes, boniato, maduros and corn. Fried egg.

This was another favorite - who doesn't love a good beef brisket - Cuban or otherwise?  The brisket was topped with an egg, with runny yolk oozing through all the nooks once pierced with my knife. Delicious bits of corn and peppers were interspersed throughout the dish, which was surprisingly sweet in nature and helped steer the dish away from being too heavy.

Papas con Chorizo ($6)
Olive oil smashed potatoes, chorizo, sour cream and Monterey Jack cheese gratin.

This was pure carbo-load. The olive oil smashed potatoes were quite heavy - something that was heightened with the addition of sour cream and small bits of chorizo throughout. The Monterey Jack cheese gratin was thick on top - but being a lover of cheese - I didn't really mind. But at this point in the meal - this carbo-laden dish was a bit much.

Sopa de Frijoles Negros ($5)
Traditional black bean soup. Fried yuca sticks.

This was a favorite of the GF especially - I merely sampled a bite of the fried yuca sticks and a spoonful of the soup so I could think about my two 'desserts' coming up. The fried yuca was actually perfect - nicely crispy on the outside, but creamy within. Compared to Varga's yuca sticks which aren't sufficiently creamy for my tastes - these were a dream. The soup itself was nicely salted - necessary for the black beans.

Chicharrones de la Casa ($8)
Crisp marinated chicken, skirt steak, Berkshire pork belly, Cortez chorizo and plantain tostóns. Mojo picante.

I was really looking forward to this dish - namely because I wanted to taste the pure essence of the pork belly. Unfortunately this dish fell flat - all the components were marinated in a sweet sauce, with the exception of the plantains (the huge disk on the left and the thin chip in the middle). The sauce was not as picante as I would've liked. The huge disk of plaintains was also very very dry in the middle - almost inedible. The pork belly, below, was the only saving component of the dish - though I feel it was somewhat marred by the marinade.

And for our last quartet of dishes - we ordered two desserts for me and two for the GF. Mine were savory and hers were sweet. Can you guess which ones were mine?

Pancita de Puerco ($8)
Honey-soy glazed Berkshire pork belly pinchos, vigorón slaw and chicharrones.

This was easily my favorite dish of this feast. The pure essence of the pork belly was presented. I was a bit apprehensive about the honey-soy glaze adulterating the pork, but it only lightly enhanced it. The vinegary slaw beneath the three skewers of pork belly (two nice chunks to a skewer) was heavenly and provided the perfect counterbalance to the fat of the pork. The chicharrones (fried pork rinds) were a nice textural element to the dish. I would come back for this dish alone.

Arroz Frito Con Perros Calientes ($8)
Napa cabbage, Spanish chistorras sausages and Berkshire pork belly-fried rice. Fried egg.

At this point in the meal - even I was feeling it. However, I forged on. This fried rice was a nice rendition. And again - who doesn't love a runny egg topped with some Siracha hot sauce? The Napa cabbage was very reminiscent of kimchi or Korean fermented cabbage, typically made with Napa cabbage as well. This rendition was more vinegary, than funky and I really appreciated it in this dish. The chistorras sausages were more prevalent in this dish than pork belly - but at this point in the meal - it was fine, even with me. Another dish I would recommend. 

Waffle de Chocolate ($6)
Cuban chocolate waffle, chunky banana sun-dried cherry-vanilla syrup.

The GF's first dessert did not fans make. The chocolate waffle was fairly dry and was not chocolate-y enough. The banana provided the sweet element to the dish. The sun-dried cherry-vanilla syrup was not highly prevalent in the dish. The one highlight of the dish - the 'GF-certified' "real whipped cream." Still - not a dish I would order again.

Torreja ($10)
Guava paste and cream cheese filled brioche bread French toast. Drunken strawberry-honey drizzle.

As soon as we saw this on the menu, the GF and I immediately thought of Sabrina's version of stuffed french toast. This was not on par with Sabrina's but it made a respectable go at it. The guava paste was naturally sweet and the kitchen may have been a bit too heavy handed with it. The cream cheese provided a nice balance to that sweetness. The french toast was nicely cooked, though the bottom half got soggy.Not being a fan of overly indulgent desserts - I can't say I would recommend the dish again, but the GF found it to be decent.

Service at Cuba Libre was pretty good - initially a bit aloof but serviceable, our server kept our glasses full and attended to our needs. He checked in on us at the end - curious as to our takes on several of the newer dishes. The manager also stopped by once to make sure everything was up to par.  

Overall, the unlimited piqueos brunch at Cuba Libre is a great deal - provided you have the stomach for it. If you can eat more than 3 of these dishes - it's best to go with the unlimited option. Otherwise - the dishes I would advocate for are the Buñuelos de Espinaca, Torta de Cangrejo Benedict (provided it is warmer than our iteration), One-Eyed Ropa Vieja Hash, Pancita de Puerco, and the Arroz Frito Con Perros Calientes. I would definitely order no more than 3 dishes at a time lest you suffer the possibility that your dish may be cold. That's understandable since the quality of the dishes doesn't scream mass production and the kitchen may need time to assemble said dishes. If you've never had Cuban food - I would take the opportunity to try this brunch option - you can have a taste of pretty much everything.  

Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar on Urbanspoon

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