Where Continents Collide

Canela combines the best of Cuba with a taste of Spain

Barely a week after Canela opened two months ago, a very picky Cuban-American friend of mine — who happens to be a stickler for authenticity — returned from a lunch at the small yet stylish café with a convincing report. She was particularly impressed with not only the daily special of ropa vieja but also the listing of beef soup on the blackboard.

"It's not something you find in a lot of restaurants, but if you were eating in a Cuban home, that's how it would typically be," she explained. "The broth is a byproduct when you're making the meat."

She also noted something rather unusual in the medianoche sandwich: "You know how usually the cold cuts kind of suck? At this place they didn't."

Since nonsucky is, for my friend, equivalent to a five-star rating when it comes to Cuban restaurants, we immediately set off for dinner at Canela. And to our surprise, we found a menu of Spanish food, mostly tapas. But locals familiar with clubs that change their identities nightly will have no trouble sorting out Canela's split personality. The key is its owner, Cuban American Margarita Vasallo; and cooks who hail from Spain and Chile.

At night a Spanish cook turns out a small selection of Spanish entrées (paella plus a couple of specials) and an extensive selection of tapas — sometimes too extensive for the tiny kitchen and staff to handle. On both of two evening visits, two intriguing tapas — bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers, and garbanzos fritos (chickpeas sautéed with onions and Cantimpalo chorizo) — were unavailable. On one occasion, roast peppers were missing from a mixed cheese tapas plate, and slices of bland deli-style, nonaged Provolone were substituted for most of the Manchego. And both the mussels and unexpected chicken chunks in a seafood cazuelita were woefully overcooked, making the dish disappointing despite a peppy sofrito.

But with almost four dozen tapas from which to chose, there are plenty of other options. Specially recommended are fabulous grilled asparagus with an unusual tangy/sweet aioli sauce; boquerones a la vinagreta, marinated but not overly vinegary fresh anchovies; and crunchy calamar frito — only rings, no tentacles, but very tasty when dipped in the aioli.

During lunch, Vasallo and a Chilean cook serve what the owner calls Latin soul food, namely sandwiches and specials that are basically Cuban with multicultural touches. Pickles in a medianoche, for instance, were elegant cornichons instead of junky dill slices. Although the roast pork in a pan con lechon was discouragingly dry, aioli and mounds of perky pickled onions minimalized the damage. A choice of toppers ranging from mango aioli to Haitian pickliz elegantly enhanced a perfectly cooked churrasco, which was abundantly flavorful to begin with.

And mami would kill for the secret of Canela's sopa de pollo. More of a Cuban ajiaco, the richly flavorful chicken broth contained everything but the kitchen sink.

Some items grace both the night and day menus, notably an ensalada tropical of baby greens and exotica (mangos, papayas, apples, marinated onions, and much more), which is far superior to many of the iceberg lettuce salads typical of Cuba and Spain. Impossibly creamy house croquetas are always available and always swoon-worthy. And the bread basket at both sittings contains pão de queijo. These chewy Brazilian cheese biscuits are simple yet seductive, much like Canela.

 
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