Remembrance of Cuba Past
As sons and daughters of exiles, some members of the first generation of Cuban Americans to be raised in Miami no doubt feel somewhat cheated -- especially those sensitive artist types. Some can't read, write, or speak Spanish as well as their parents do. Others have lost ties with relatives back on the island, feel cut off from the local community, and often clash with the values of immediate family members. Many aren't well-versed in Cuban art, music, and literature -- the backbone of a culture -- and have difficulty relating to the fabled Havana of the Fifties. Poet Richard Blanco, whose work deals with the issues young Cuban Americans face today, explains it this way: "Ultimately, I do not feel totally American, but I have nothing else real to hold on to. My nostalgia is nostalgia of nostalgia, for a Cuba of the mind that doesn't exist any more. It exists for my parents, but not for me."
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.
In addition to the mojo, Cordero's mother makes flan, bread pudding, and black beans. Mixed with diced red pepper and red onion, the beans were too acidic as a cold appetizer, tasting vinegar-cured. But they were delicious under a main course of sliced pork tenderloin. The pork was slightly dry, and the garlic-infused beans gave it some needed punch. Minced black beans also served as a component of langosta en salsa negra, a pound-and-a-half Maine lobster coated with an aromatic "black sauce." Once shelled, the sweet flesh was a treat, but the problem was getting to it; by the end of the meal my guest looked as if she had been finger-painting. The kitchen should consider doing some more prep work here by precracking the shell like a stone crab claw.
We should have stuck with Emilita for dessert. We passed over her flan in favor of a more interesting-sounding mango creme brulee spiked with Gran Marnier; we were appalled by its putrid flavor. Chocolate mousse was also disappointing: Because the egg whites hadn't been whipped sufficiently, this was more like melted pudding than an airy mass of chocolate. Only a poached pear -- half-dipped in bittersweet chocolate, stuffed with minced walnuts, and set over a strawberry sauce -- fulfilled expectations.
Aside from the kitchen, the restaurant could use some fine-tuning in other areas. Rather than park our car, the valets wanted us to cut across three lanes of traffic so we could parallel-park it ourselves at a meter. Why bother to have valets at all? In this case I would have welcomed some help -- the restaurant doesn't have a parking lot, and the bars on its front windows suggest that the neighborhood isn't great. Once inside we stood for several long minutes in the foyer while employees ignored us; one woman was arranging vases of red roses, walking past us as she moved them hither and yon. Hint: Flowers are less important than customers and should be arranged before the restaurant opens for dinner.
The roses also appeared as a garnish with each main course, their stems long enough to stick between your teeth while dancing the tango. This was aesthetically appealing, but I think it's a needless expense. Money would be better spent on stocking the wine cellar. We chose a pinot grigio from the wine list -- handed to us at the beginning of the meal -- only to be told after some time had passed that none of the Italian wines was available. Fine. We chose another vintage and handed back the list a second time. Eventually another server came over and informed us the cafe had only one wine, a Kendall Jackson chardonnay. He didn't tell us the cost, though, and we wound up paying $38 for a decent but run-of-the-mill white (which was finally poured after our appetizers had appeared). If a restaurant is going to carry only one wine, it should be a more moderately priced one.
That said, Cafe Cuba Libre is a cut -- and a price category -- above the typical Cuban restaurant on Eighth Street. Or just about anywhere else in Miami, for that matter. If the kinks are ironed out, the restaurant will be a delightful place for YUCAs, Cuban-American Gen Xers, and future Hemingways to absorb lost culture.
Cafe Cuba Libre
2516 SW 8th St, Miami; 642-3323. Lunch Monday -- Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Thursday from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m; Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Open Sunday from 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
Black bean salad
Hog snapper chowder
Sauteed lamb chops
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