Consider the daiquiri. Ask someone on the street to define it, and they'll likely describe a frozen abomination spiked with some kind of strawberry concoction festooned with little umbrellas and served on cruise ships. But a good bartender, especially a Cuban bartender, knows better. A true daiquiri contains just three ingredients: rum, simple syrup, and lime juice. When it's prepared with the right technique and in the correct quantities, something incredible happens. The sugar polishes off the alcohol's burn while the lime tamps down the sweetness, resulting in a perfectly balanced drink that for some bartenders is the benchmark against which all others are measured.
Of course, the daiquirí clásico ($12) is the first drink on the bar menu at Little Havana's Cafe La Trova (971 SW Eighth St., Miami; 786-615-4379; cafelatrova.com), which opened earlier this year, marking the long-awaited reunion of James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein and iconic bartender Julio Cabrera. Yet here the focus is on far more than just food or drinks. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a stage backdropped with the weathered façade of an Old Havana building. A clothesline strung with someone's laundry stretches across the ceiling and hangs above a 1950s car that people use for a photo op. Meanwhile, the upbeat thwack of bongos fills the room as a trumpet player squeals out jazz tunes on weeknights and driving trova music on weekends, when the place stays open well past midnight.
Don't be surprised to find 20- and 70-somethings shaking it up on the dance floor. They're fortified by daiquiris: the Hotel Nacional ($12), with rum, apricot liqueur, and pineapple and lime juice, and La Chancleta ($12), which blends cachaça, ginger-honey syrup, and lime juice in a wooden mug affixed to a sandal.
Though it's tempting to try to define Cafe La Trova as one thing or another, that's impossible. It's not a restaurant; nor is it a bar or a club or a performance venue. It's some unnamed combination of all of them in which each element is executed with perfection, simultaneously creating delight while making up for a lot of the kitsch that has claimed some parts of the neighborhood.
Bernstein and Cabrera first met in the early 2000s when she was opening a restaurant in Mexico and he was working in the same hotel. Yet Cabrera's career as a bartender — a highly trained, sophisticated, well-dressed Cuban cantinero — began long before. Becoming a bartender on the island in the late 1980s when he started out meant taking two years of classes covering every aspect of the job down to the most minute detail.
"It was cutting the fruit, handling glassware, and learning every shaking and stirring technique, how to build a cocktail, how to muddle, how to handle the ice, how to do everything right, and how to deal with customers so that hospitality can be shown in its maximum expression," Cabrera says.
He quickly decided he wanted to spend a large part of his career passing on that knowledge and relocated to Cypress, where he graduated as a trainer in hotels and tourism from a university in Nicosia in 1991. What followed was 30 years of pouring drinks around the globe that made him a celebrity on both the local and international circuits and earned him the nickname "Papa Doble," another name for the daiquiri variation called the Hemingway Special, with maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juices alongside rum and lime.
In the years since, Cabrera and Bernstein have been almost inseparable. He came to Miami from Mexico to run the bar program at her restaurant Michy's, which didn't have a liquor license. He still created a standout lineup using beer and wine while also invading the kitchen by using Bernstein and her cooks to create ingredients for the bar. The two struck gold again, at Sra. Martinez in the Design District, where Cabrera's bar, tucked in a loft at the back of the restaurant, won national recognition and is one of the bars that launched Miami's now-thriving cocktail scene. A trip two years ago to Santiago de Cuba, the island's music capital, solidified this latest spot.
"We went to Buena Vista Social Club, and they would play Celia Cruz and bring me up on the stage," Bernstein says of the trip with Cabrera and her husband David Martinez. "There is a feeling of welcoming in Cuban hospitality culture, in cantinero culture, that's like Southern hospitality. It's in the air, and it's very palpable."
Getting La Trova's menu right, however, hasn't been as straightforward. At the outset, the kitchen was offering traditional Cuban fare, but there was backlash. The people wanted Bernstein's food. So she acquiesced, and the Miami-raised Argentine added flaky-crusted empanadas filled with steak and a sweet blend of caramelized onions, olives, and sherry ($12) alongside one with chicken, corn, fermented garlic, and scallion ($10). The croquetas are a happy compromise, and none in the city is better than the paella ones that come with a shot of seafood caldo and saffron aioli. Here the kitchen prepares a full paella, complete with saffron, bomba rice, mussels, clams, and pink shrimp, all chopped finely enough to be tucked into two bites.
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A tapas section features a more eclectic mix, including a classic ceviche ($14), prepared the way Bernstein's mother used to serve it, along with a crunchy duck leg confit ($16) and two fantastically fat, juicy head-on prawns ($18) that are perfectly cooked and dusted with a bit of toasted tajin seasoning to lend some acid and spice. Another standout is the foie gras torchon ($22), but less for the liver — which was well executed with a cinnamon, coriander, and cumin cure — and more for the roasted pineapple "butter" spiked with agave, giving each rich bite an unexpected hit of tartness.
Yes, there's also an iteration of Bernstein's famed short ribs ($36), this time braised, grilled, and then served with a velvety celery root purée, horseradish, and a fennel and apple salad. She also asks for your patience with arroz con pollo ($21), which eschews the traditional technique for a boned-out chicken that is slowly cooked in fat before being crisped, sliced, and served atop chicken-fat-sautéed rice cooked down with tomato paste, white wine, smoked paprika, and chicken stock. With all due respect to abuela, Bernstein's version is far superior.
That extra care is something that spills over into every corner of La Trova. The cantinero culture that Cabrera champions is present in the food, in the service, and in the music, and all of them feed off one another to create something truly special. It's something that Miami, which has long been criticized for its lackluster service, can be proud of. But all of them need the others to thrive. As is scrawled on the wall above the coffee counter: "La trova sin trago si traba," which Cabrera says loosely means, "Trova music without a drink just doesn't work." Though each of the elements of La Trova sings well on its own, it's only when they're all together that something magical happens.