Catharsis Restaurant and Lounge: Feast and Fest in Little Havana
On weekends, Catharsis Restaurant and Lounge pulses with the Latin drum beats of Buena Vista Social Club's "El Cuarto de Tula." Alma Castellanos, a flamboyant singer with cascading auburn curls, cranks it up with songs ranging from "Ay! Mamá Inés" to Juanucho Lopez's "Jaquetón Pachanguero." Her voice is much like the restaurant's vibe: loud, energetic, and animated.
The 80-seat dining room is packed. Excessively perfumed, scarlet-lipped women sit across from their dates: men with graying, slicked-back hair and crisp button-up shirts (or the occasional guayabera). At this Little Havana eatery, almost everyone sings along because they all know the lyrics.
On a recent Saturday night, Castellanos set the entire dining room dancing in line. The crowd put down their forks and shimmied among tightly packed white-tablecloth-topped tables while dodging the large black trays hoisted aloft by the busy waitstaff. Fired up by wine and the ethereal effects of salsa and son, even the shyest of patrons was coerced into the hip-shaking ritual. The entire place se puso caliente.
Partners Hernan Stutzer, Marcelo Malvicino, and Vivian González Díaz — who is also known as the expert psychologist on Telemundo's Caso Cerrado (Case Closed) — opened the restaurant about a year ago. They hoped to offer a mélange of Latin American and Caribbean cuisines with a bit of Italian inspiration.
Catharsis celebrates SW Eighth Street's Hispanic community. Coupled with the increasing popularity of Viernes Culturales — Little Havana's monthly arts festival — the restaurant has become a Calle Ocho destination for fine dining, music, and a lively dose of Latin nightlife.
The kitchen is helmed by Colombian chef Alberto Llano, whose menu dabbles in eclectic and Latin American classics. Dishes arrive with generous garnishes of sprinkled parsley, and there are many of the expected plates: caesar and caprese salads, grilled chicken, mushroom ravioli, and the unavoidable chocolate soufflé. But given the intoxicating vibe, you're unlikely to hear complaints about the mostly traditional offerings.
The décor is a classic backdrop to the boisterous setting. Sound emanates from a small dark stage set up at the back of the space, past the cream-colored dining room with wooden floors, arched walls, and dim lighting. Striped burnt-orange and red pillows, as well as similarly colored sconces, line the walls. With its arched ceiling, the space resembles a cellar.
The menu lists cold appetizers first, including a simple corvina-and-shrimp ceviche dressed with a refreshing mix of sliced red onions and minced yellow and red peppers. The generous portion, which is served in a plain glass bowl, is too large to consume entirely — particularly without any textural variety. A mariquita or two would have added a needed crunch.
Waiters consistently shake their hips and fan their arms as they serve. Ours was also attentive enough to pause and ask whether we were enjoying our appetizer selection. Now that's rhythm.
Hot appetizers are composed of Latin American classics. House-made baked empanadas — stuffed with beef, chicken, or spinach and ricotta cheese — are offered for an affordable $2.95. Perfectly crisp, greaseless tostones — fried green plantains — are another hot appetizer. They come topped with a mix of fresh mango, red onion, tomato, and cilantro (which also accompanies the empanadas); the dish could have benefited greatly from an additional kick of spice.
An order of croquetas, another fried appetizer, features three flavorful round ham croquettes and three barely seasoned, dry cylinders of a chicken rendition. The croquetas are outdone by crisp slivers of delectable fried yuca and two sauces: creamy cilantro and a moderately sweet guava emulsion.
Salads are available in two portions, either individual or sharable. Most appealing is the arugula salad, which comes with crumbled feta cheese and crisp pancetta bits. The greens are dressed in a balsamic-Dijon mustard vinaigrette.
It's a good thing that dining at Catharsis involves Zumba-like dancing. In classic Latin American fashion, the majority of hot appetizers are fried, buttered-up, or doused in pork fat.
Main courses feature a variety of options, with a big focus on the meat: pork loin, churrasco with French fries, and a platter of three-hour braised short ribs. The last is a robust, deeply flavored meat packed with an intense aroma developed by low and slow cooking in red wine. The short ribs are matched with a buttery serving of slightly stiff polenta.
As my guest and I were being served, a flock of pantsuit-wearing, gray-haired ladies assembled in a circle in the middle of the dining room. They raised their arms and waved their napkins while jovially singing along to the music.
A breaded, delicately seasoned pan-fried grouper fillet brought our attention back to the food. The dish benefits from one of the restaurant's most creative additions: black mashed potatoes, boldly tinted by squid ink. At the table, a rich cream-based shrimp sauce is ceremoniously poured alongside the fish. The grouper, however, could have used a dash or two of salt.
The pastas at Catharsis are made in-house and include a selection of ravioli: pear and Gorgonzola in a pesto cream sauce; porcini mushrooms enveloped in a white sauce with scallions; and lobster, paired with crushed amaretti cookies and a cognac reduction.
Our waiter recommended the spinach and ricotta cannelloni as the best-selling offering (and his favorite). A rolled and stuffed crespelle — a thin Italian pancake similar to a crêpe — is doused in a thick, hearty pink tomato-and-cream sauce packed with Parmesan. The sauce overwhelms the delicate crespelle, especially because of the excessive quantity that fills the platter.
Sun-dried tomato risotto is another almost-hit. The risotto benefits from fresh goat cheese and caramelized onions, but the dish would have been better if the rice hadn't been overcooked. Then again, the kitchen crew is probably jamming behind the swinging doors. It must be difficult to focus on rice when there's a fest just a few steps away.
Desserts follow in the dancing footsteps of the rest of the menu: few innovations but mostly pleasing results. The chocolate soufflé is dressed up with a tableside flambé. After drizzling a few drops of Bacardi white rum atop the dessert, the waiter ignites the small chocolate dome. The preparation attracts attention and, this being the age of the iPhone, numerous camera flashes. After the fire, the taste of the rum is largely indistinguishable. A traditional flan benefits from a bolder addition of alcohol; the dessert is paired with a plum-colored port reduction and a tiny squirt of dulce de leche.
With all the weekend dancing and music, service is predictably slow and dinner can take about three hours. During the week, the waitstaff is genuinely attentive and friendly — and feels most comfortable speaking in Spanish.
On weekdays, when the room is far sparser, compilations from Paris's acclaimed Hôtel Costes take over the sound system, creating a calmer, more international ambiance. But it's the weekend's buoyant groove that keeps people coming back in droves. Every other month, Catharsis also offers a gimmicky night of dining in the dark — an evening when patrons wear blindfolds while they eat.
During one weekday evening, chef Llano, an amiable, dark-haired toque with a quiet voice and gentle tone, emerged from the kitchen to converse with guests throughout the restaurant. He shyly approached and asked, "How was the meal?" He received various positive remarks, to which he answered, "Good, because we've been working very hard for a year now."
Outside Catharsis — where salsa beats faintly echo — is the Little Havana where you have always wanted to spend more time. Though there are still only a few brightly lit restaurants, art galleries, and bars, the sidewalks of Calle Ocho already smell, sound, and look like a hot happening nightlife and dining destination.
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