The Road to Heck
If the road to hell is paved solely with good intentions, the road to heck is paved with good intentions and imperfect execution.
Take Bella Cuba.
The intentions of chef-owners Juan Carlos and Larisa Jimenez are clear: Serve contemporary Cuban-Caribbean food -- inventive but not off-the-wall -- stylishly presented in a chic little room at neighborhood restaurant prices.
Real neighborhood prices, though, are not what you'd expect from a restaurant on the ass end of Lincoln Road, where a slab of badly cooked fish smothered in icky tropical fruit salsa can suck the sixteen-digit code right off your credit card and make you wish you had just gone down the block and ordered pizza.
So their intentions are good.
The execution? Well, that needs a little work.
Swordfish escabeche looked swell on the plate -- a tangy salsa of mango, peppers, and onions topping a mound of baby greens ringed with a quartet of swordfish pieces cooked and then brined in the classic escabeche process. The little nuggets were tasty but hard and chewy, as swordfish is apt to be when it's even the slightest bit overcooked.
Seafood enchilados, actually a sofrito-based seafood stew, looked spiffy too. A wealth of seafood swam in a highly concentrated fire engine-red sauce dominated by a large tube of calamari cut in half and stood on end to resemble the Jolly Green Giant's condom. But the squid-prophylactic was tough and rubbery, several mussels were the typical horrid fingernail-size things with no flavor or texture, a piece of swordfish was so nasty it reeked, and the sauce tasted mostly of tomatoes. Although the shrimp weren't bad.
As for the coconut flan, we'll get to that later.
All of which is not to suggest that dining at Bella Cuba is a hellish or even heckish experience. The staff is friendly and solicitous if not hugely efficient. The room itself is as artfully designed as the plates -- blond wood wainscoting topped with a running band of mirrors, whimsical paintings of fruit on the walls, a column cleverly made into a four-sided banquette, classy-looking wicker furniture, a tiny three-seat bar in back.
The wine list is small and not terribly distinguished but appropriate for a modest neighborhood eatery. Among the bottles under $30 is the 2002 Calina Chardonnay, a simple yet pleasing wine with a touch of buttery Chardonnay richness and soft Meyer lemon acidity that allow it to partner well with any seafood or poultry dish on the menu.
And for some dishes, good intentions and careful execution travel together. Ham and chicken croquetas were terrific, their crisp, mahogany breading giving way to a smoky, velvety purée of the two salient proteins that practically dissolve on your palate. Four little cylinders come with a salad tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette and brandy sauce that tastes like Thousand Island dressing.
Caribbean rack of lamb is also a knockout. A quartet of small, thin, but immensely flavorful chops get a wickedly delicious guava-mustard glaze, bulked up by sweet and russet potatoes and a bowl of black beans and rice. The chops were cooked medium rather than the requested medium-rare, but the flavors were so good it seemed ungracious to complain.
Then we come to dessert -- coconut flan, a rather strange one. Not the light, eggy custard with sweetly caramelized juices one might expect, but two leaden gobs of what tasted like straight coconut cream, separated by another gob of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with vivid red raspberry purée and verdant green mint syrup. It was as pretty to look at as it was heavy going down, a good intention lost somewhere on the road to heck.
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