Cuban cookery is a happy intermarriage of divergent yet ultimately complementary culinary traditions. The island's distinctive cocina criolla (creole cuisine) is part West African stews and starches, part Spanish olives and oranges, part native foodstuffs like plantains, boniatos, papayas, and cassavas, with enough far-flung influences from China, India, and colonial France to keep things interesting. One can sup on platters and cauldrons of slow-roasted pig or shredded beef fragrant with garlic, cumin, bay leaf, and sour oranges; crispy fried plantains; or mashed malanga drizzled with lime juice and olive oil; a big bowl of moros y cristianos (black beans and rice, the country's national dish); with a coconut pastelito for the sweet tooth and one of the island's legendary cocktails — daiquiri? Mojito? — to wash it all down.
Despite the island's hearty, spicy culinary traditions, Cuban restaurants are a rarity in the Bay Area, probably because Caribbean migration patterns tend to favor the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast over faraway California. Nevertheless, one remembers with longing the arroz con pollo with sour oranges and garlic served at San Francisco's late, lamented Siboney, or the stellar mojitos crafted behind the bar at the also defunct Habana on Van Ness Avenue. Another more successful West Indies venture, Havana, opened in Walnut Creek in 2002 and has flourished to the extent that a second Havana opened just over a year ago on the otherwise frond-free isle of Alameda. The house cuisine isn't quite as proletariat-rustic as the original article, with mango Dijon glazes, pineapple rum chutneys and other California-fusion accents decorating the platters, but enough of the menu items are uniquely Caribbean enough to warrant a visit.
The place is faintly reminiscent of a West Indies courtyard, with high ceilings, atmospherically low lighting, and the occasional aquatic-blue accent contributing to the whole sugarcane-and-wicker ambiance. Enormous photographs of Havana street life decorate the pastel walls, palm fronds droop from random corners, and a small bar near the big front windows looks out on the passing parade of downtown Alameda. The stellar sounds of Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and their percussion-happy brethren add that necessary Let's Mambo! component.
Moros y cristianos is a good way to kick off your meal. The key to stellar black beans and rice is its sofrito, the fragrant, slow-cooked salsa of garlic, onions, sweet peppers, and spices that's stirred into the beans before serving. Havana's rendition was exemplary: a smoky, spicy, earthy delight, satisfying on several levels. The house maduros (fried plantains), another Cuban culinary classic, were crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, surprisingly greaseless and un-starchy, and drizzled with a pleasantly tart apple coulis. The mango gazpacho was more like a bowl of Indian lassi than a refreshing summertime soup, but it had a nice spicy-salsa undertone that tempered the dish's sweetness. The halibut ceviche was burdened with a strong citrus flavor and a mildly rubbery texture, and the mixed grill was a mixed bag: tough skirt steak and gloppy sweet and sour rice redeemed by plump, spiky chorizo sausage and juicy chunks of pork tenderloin.
Pigmeat also starred in the restaurant's best entrée, the cane-glazed pork chops. Tender and succulent, with a ribbon of smoky fat adding taste and texture, they were wonderfully complemented by those yummy black beans and a hillock of richly puréed boniato (aka the Cuban sweet potato). Less impressive was the plantain-crusted halibut, a moist yet overly bland preparation with the saving accent of a tart, delicious grilled corn-black bean salsa. Paella, a popular Cuban dish since the Spanish colonial days, was also disappointing: soupy, wishy-washy and pizzazz-free, with a few random examples of overcooked seafood and no saffron to speak of. But the chicken adobo, another Spanish specialty, was a peppery treat: nothing but a slow-marinated quarter-chicken with lots of oomph and moist, tender texture, a refreshing mango salsa, and black beans and rice on the side.
Two or three desserts are available nightly. The rum and caramel flan was light and delicate with a nice boozy undertone, and the chocolate mousse, while not as dark and fudgy as I'd opt for, had a pleasant fluffy personality and plenty of rich chocolate flavor.
Although Havana's menu appears, at first glance, to be singularly vegetarian-unfriendly — each and every entrée features one beast or another in a starring role — the kitchen is happy to put something together to meet your needs and has even been known to prepare a rather elaborate vegetarian platter consisting of grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, fried yucca, sofrito rice, mashed boniato, and that marvelous roasted-corn salad. The regular menu also features several meat-free starters, including two salads, the mango gazpacho, boniato garlic fries with guava chipotle sauce, twice-fried plantains with pineapple salsa, the black beans and rice, and the plantain maduros glazed with manzana.
Havana's wine list is more or less nonexistent, primarily because the place is all about the mojitos. Havana (the city) has been famous for its cocktails since the 1920s, when thirsty Americans fled their Prohibition-ravaged country for the inventive run-and-tropical fruit concoctions — the daiquiri, the Presidente, the Cuba Libre — that made Cuba the bartender's mecca. The mojito was perfected during the island's post-WWII golden era and has been especially popular over the past couple of decades. Havana (the restaurant) celebrates the drink a dozen different ways, stirring up not only the classic rum-mint-sugar-lime-soda version but also variations involving rums flavored with mango, pineapple, orange, peach, and raspberry. The mojito de colada — a mixture of mint, pineapple juice, and coconut Bacardi — was pleasantly dry and refreshing, not too sweet, with a sparkle and a kick that complemented the hearty, spicy cuisine de la casa.
What the Fork - March 24, 10:21 AM