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Restaurateur Martha Cordero, who was born in Cuba but emigrated at a young age, is attempting to bring back that Cuba of the mind, a time when intellectuals and artists gathered to drink, eat, and argue in fine restaurants. That's why she and her brother Napoleon Cordero opened Cafe Cuba Libre two months ago on SW Eighth Street in Miami. The proprietors are dedicated, as Cordero puts it, to "bringing Cuban culture back to Calle Ocho." To that end the partners bill their restaurant as a place in which Hemingway, a frequent visitor to Cuba, would have drunk every night. Paintings by Cuban artist Jose Grave de Peralta cover every available inch of the white wall space in an otherwise plain, square dining room. They'll be displayed for the next two months, at which point Grave de Peralta will become curator and will choose another Cuban artist to exhibit. Tuesday through Sunday guitarists Oscar Marco and Danny Piloto sing and play songs by everyone from Benny More to Billy Joel; they're practically loud enough to be heard at the Freedom Tower downtown, and the Corderos encourage patrons to join in at the mic. "We've got singers, actors, dancers, even stand-up comics who want to take a turn," Martha Cordero notes. "And they're all good."
If the atmosphere of the 77-seat Cafe Cuba Libre is, as Cordero contends, like "the Cuba that YUCAs remember," then it might serve as a place where Cuban-American Gen Xers can go for a secondhand dose of old island culture. And have a good meal. Cordero serves what she calls "provincial Cuban cuisine" -- traditional recipes that represent different provinces. Such as arroz camagYeyano, rice with pork ribs and plantains from the region around CamagYey. Or salsa de perro, hog snapper chowder (supposedly an aphrodisiac) served in the hotels of Caibarien in the Las Villas province. Our waiter unveiled the latter by whisking the lid off a crockery bowl large and steaming enough to give us a facial. A hog snapper fillet, which can sometimes be tough, was meaty but flaky, bathed in a cream broth. Sliced white potatoes, onions, and green peppers gently flavored the soup. We didn't get an amorous lift from the chowder, but we were subtly wooed.
The chowder is a house specialty. Emilita Cordero, the proprietors' mother, taught executive chef Paul Prat her recipe. "Once we convinced him to stop putting red and yellow peppers in it, he was fine," Martha jokes. Prat, Corsican-born and French-trained, worked at the original Charade in Coral Gables (it burned down about two years ago) and the Ritz-Carlton in Paris. Cuban food has been something of a leap for him, but Cordero says he identifies with the Cuban cause because of Corsica's struggle to be free from French rule. At the end of the night he even steps out of the kitchen to sing "Guantanamera" in French.
I didn't stay long enough to rate his voice, but I did eat enough of his fare to judge him on his culinary efforts. Oddly enough, the French onion soup was miserable. The Swiss cheese-covered crock was filled with tender onions and a chunk of bread, but the broth had all the appeal of a day-old street puddle. Lobster bisque, a soup of the day, also failed -- we couldn't detect any shellfish flavor in the heavy cream.
Fortunately, the crabcake starter was a major improvement in the seafood department: pan-fried and densely packed with crab rather than breadcrumbs, and dressed with a cream sauce and caper berries. The only flaw here was a too-loose interior, a problem that also afflicted conch fritters. Crunchy and nongreasy on the outside, the filling was simply too moist to cohere.
Prat seemed more comfortable with entrees. The palomilla, two pounded flank steaks, were supple and juicy, braced by a squeeze of lime and a smattering of raw white onions. We found this a little too herby, however, as if the meat had been rubbed with thyme. Ditto the lamb chops, which were otherwise enjoyable. The three medium-rare chops were sauteed with whole cloves of garlic, mushrooms, onions, and peppers.
Braised oxtail easily outdistanced the other main course meats. The four sections of tail were delicious, the stewed meat pulling off the bones without a struggle. A brown sauce, mellow with onions and carrots, was spooned over buttered white and yellow rice, the side dish that accompanied each entree. Sweet fried plantains, which Cordero imports from Hawaii, also garnished each main course. The starchy fruit also proved to be tasty as a tostones starter. Doused with Emilita's lime-heavy mojo, these four plantain slices were deep-fried yet grease-free.