Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar

I visited Cuba on two occasions: once in 2000 during spring break with a group of students from McGill University and the other the following year when my parents and I drove from Santiago de Cuba to Pinar del Rio. In Havana, I met a young Canadian diplomat and we chatted about his experience living in the small communist island. He missed being able to catch the latest hollywood blockbuster movie at the local movie theater but most particularly, he missed good food. In his words, “communist revolutions are not good for the local cuisine” and indeed food, which is typically an integral part of how I get to know a new country, played a rather insignificant role in my Cuban experience. Well… unless you consider daiquiris food 😉

The 1961 Cuban revolution had a profound impact on the island’s cuisine which had to adapt to food shortages and government restrictions. It may explain why Barry Gutin, co-owner of Cuba Libre, chose to channel pre-Castro Cuba in its Havana-themed chain of restaurants. After finding success in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Orlando, Cuba Libre is testing the DC waters with a new location near the Convention Center at 801A 9th St. NW. The restaurant officially opened last Friday with a special introductory offer of 50% off all food items the first week, an offer that I fully took advantage of last night when I tried pretty much everything on their food (and drink) menu!

Lechon Asado: roasted leg and shoulder of marinated pork dressed with orange-lime mojo
The look and feel of Cuba Libre may transport you to (a Disney-fied version of) Havana but the menu is more Nuevo Latino than Cuban. For the DC location, Chef-Partner Guillermo Pernot conceptualized a new menu with greater emphasis on small plates called piqueos and aperitivos. Now Pernot’s name may sound French but sadly he is absolutely not related to the French absinthe maker like I initially assumed. Instead, he was born in Argentina but does have ties to Cuba through his wife who is not only from the island but is also the great, great, granddaughter of one of its former President. While trying to imagine what Cuban food would be like today if its progression hadn’t been interupted by the communist revolution, Pernot came up with some tasty dishes like the Guacamole Cubano which mixes in golden pineapple with the avocado or, my personal favourite dish of the evening, a delicious dark rum-glazed pork belly with vignoron slaw. He also threw in a series of ceviche, which we tried in a sampler but of which only the tuna and salmon ceviches are really worth mentioning. Moving on from the small plates to more substantive offerings (called platos), our table tried the sea bass a la plancha, the lechon asado and the ropa vieja. All the portions were very generous and the flavours were good though perhaps a little overpriced had it not been for the 50% discount. We managed to save a little room for desserts and shared a tres leches cake and a flan!
Tres Leches de Banana: vanilla sponge cake with chocolate banana mousse and caramelized bananas

Tocino del Cielo (aka Cuban flan) served with fresh red fruits

Cuba Libre is a pretty perfect fit for DC’s Chinatown, an area which features a lot of restaurant chains like Legal Seafood, Clyde’s, Ping Pong Dim Sum, La Tasca etc. I’ll certainly come back and order some piqueos to share with friends. The main reason I will return though will be the bar. Cuba Libre boasts an impressive selection of specialty cocktail made with fresh tropical fruit juices. The drink menu boasts some 14 different mojitos, 6 caipirinhas, some pisco sours and of course cuba libres! Our server agressively promoted the restaurant’s rum menu which includes 75 rum varieties. I must say I was very tempted by the rum sampler but my experience with Masa 14‘s tequila sampler has taught me to just say no to hard alcohol samplers, particularly on school nights 😉 Though perhaps I should have been a little more careful with the mojitos too… the passion fruit, guava or pineapple mojitos are so delicious you’ll find yourself ordering more of them than you should and end up with a bar tap that will barely fit in the cigar box in which it will come…

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