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Habana Good Time 

Is it the real Cuban soup or merely the Nuevo Latino? Who cares, if it's good!

Wednesday, May 7 2003
My friends Adam, Janice, and Chester were excited when they heard that a restaurant called Habana was opening in San Francisco. Determined foodies who even considered working in the field (marketing Adam's ribs) during a lull in employment, they had been eager to share all their favorite Bay Area restaurants and purveyors, introducing me to luscious lobster rolls in Larkspur, crackling catfish po' boys in Oakland, splendid sushi in the city. "But we haven't found any Cuban restaurants at all," they told me, with a mixture of bewilderment and indignation.

I felt their pain. Several Cuban places had been high on the list of our favorite restaurants when we all lived in Los Angeles: the fabled, dirt-cheap Versailles, home of locally notorious garlic chicken; Rincon Criollo, even cheaper, and with its own partisans who loved its pork and chicken even more than Versailles'; the beloved Portos Bakery in Glendale, hangout for the Cuban expatriate community and purveyor of fabulous medianoches, grilled sandwiches stuffed with pork, ham, cheese, and pickles, not to mention Portos' divine guava and coconut pastries, at ridiculously low prices. When I lived in New York I had favorite Cuban restaurants, too, including the Cuban-Chinese Mi Chinita in Chelsea, with its vintage stainless-steel deco diner façade; I once wrote an entire column that was an ode to a medianoche served in a now-vanished hole in the wall on Broadway next to the old Village Voice offices off Union Square. And I dragged my hostess in Miami off her beaten track to explore Cuban eateries, including yet another Versailles (no relation to the L.A. place).

But I had my doubts that we would find what we were looking for at this new "bar- restaurante" in S.F., despite the "Sabor de Cuba" that topped the menu they'd sent me. It wasn't just that the menu descriptions and ingredients (including hazelnut vinaigrette, chipotle rémoulade, smoked tomato coulis) looked much more ambitious and upscale than the homey, modest fare we were longing for. It was that restaurateur Sam DuVall had tried a number of other ideas at this location, which he'd operated off and on stretching back over two decades, including Café Royale, Kiki's, Rocco's Seafood Grill, F.I.G.S., and On the Avenue. With the last two it seemed that his attention span had dramatically shortened: Even before I'd been able to visit F.I.G.S. (whose initials stood for France, Italy, Greece, and Spain, inspiration for the small plates that dominated the menu), he'd changed the name to On the Avenue, and then closed the place down in January, in order to reopen as Habana in March. (This didn't seem feckless, exactly, but it demonstrated a certain lack of commitment.)

Still, it seemed an entirely appropriate place for dinner after Janice, Chester, and I attended a panel discussion about baseball and literature at the San Francisco Library's main branch, moderated by our pal David Kipen, the Chronicle's erudite and witty book critic. Didn't some historians feel that Cuba's history would have been entirely different if Fidel Castro had fulfilled his ambition to play shortstop for the New York Yankees? (Or was it the Brooklyn Dodgers?) I forgot to ask the distinguished panel of local authors and professors, I was so enthralled with their obvious enthusiasm for the boys of summer, preferring to hear about their vivid memories of the first game they'd each attended. It seemed that in every instance they'd witnessed a no-hitter or a shutout or a similarly infrequent, magical event, which had not only initiated their obsession but forever colored their love for the sport.

Afterward we were joined at the restaurant, conveniently located just a few minutes' drive up Van Ness, by Adam, who'd been shopping for a back-to-school wardrobe for his new job, inconveniently located (for me) some 3,000 miles away in Dulles, Va. So I was also saying a bittersweet farewell (oh, OK, au revoir) to the family I'd been referring to, only semi-ironically, as "my social life" since I'd moved up here.

I recognized the handsome black-and-white tiled floor and the big, rectangular wooden bar from previous incarnations of the space, but the bright purple and ocher walls and large open dining room I'd glimpsed were gone, replaced by a complicated décor featuring wrought iron, a magical-realist mural of exotic people and exotic animals, much vegetation (including banana palms), and a truly wonderful collection of hanging light fixtures that included amazing chandeliers. "It's what Meyer Lansky would have done if he had the money," I said.

It seemed silly to resist the lure of the enthusiastically described "hand crafted original Cuban cocktails," even at $7 each, so we tried a Mojito, a Hemingway daiquiri, and an Old Habana cocktail ("Just think of the best Manhattan you have ever had," per the somewhat overwrought menu). I found them all on the weak side, especially my drowned-in-soda Mojito, but only Adam was brave enough to send back his drink and request a boost of alcohol.

I knew that Cubans would never recognize the extravagant combinations offered on the menu (crème fraîche on the plantain-crusted tuna? marinated skirt steak served with a beef ragout, masquerading as ropa nueva, an allusion to ropa vieja, aka shredded old clothes?), but then I had taken a Cuban writer to Versailles in Los Angeles, and he had told me that the main difference between Cuban food in the United States and Cuban food in Cuba is that it is better and cheaper here, even if one is lucky enough to eat there in paladares, semilegal restaurants found in private homes.

Once we were dining, I remembered Calvin Trillin, who said that once, when he was analyzing a homemade gazpacho he was eating to see how it differed from an authentic sevillan, he realized that the main difference was that it tasted better. The proof of the pudding is indeed in the eating, and who cares that Habana presents its menu as Cuban when I think it's Nuevo Latino, that chef Joseph Kohn is more influenced by the cooking of New York's Douglas Rodriguez than that of Cuba? The bay scallops in the vieras ceviche had been rendered pillowy-soft by their bath of pineapple, lime juice, and coconut-serrano chili broth. The Habana cocktail was filled with firm, plump tiger shrimp, happily nestled among chunks of ripe, sweet mango and buttery avocado, enhanced by a fresh tomato relish. Janice was especially happy with her Habana-style Caesar, which translated to a slightly smoky chipotle dressing and manchego cheese instead of the expected Parmesan. Knowing that one of my criteria is whether I would ever order a dish again, she informed me that she would gladly return to Habana just to eat this salad. We all plucked fried calamari and scallops from Chester's generous tierra-mar platter (the tierra part of the equation was represented by expertly fried green beans and onion rings, which we dipped in very good creamy chipotle rémoulade). I heard my father's voice saying, "Don't fill up on bread," as we dipped our bread, more French than Cuban, in the bowls of garlicky chimichurri, the olive oil-based sauce full of fresh chopped parsley. Perhaps my favorite dish was the subtly spicy-sweet picadillo I had ordered, a blend of chopped chicken, almonds, raisins, tomatoes, and chayote squash that we scooped up with house-made yucca chips: I thought it would serve as an excellent light supper on its own.

The main dishes confirmed my happy impressions: Not everything was as satisfying as the first courses, but then I had initially approached those with suspicion, and my expectations had been raised. The most successful dishes included Janice's tuna patacon, the thick chunk of plantain-crusted ahi tuna (wittily echoing the fashionable, labor-intensive nouvelle cuisine invention of potato-crusted fish) still rare at its center, with black bean sauce, a very tasty mash of maduro plantains with bacon and onions, and crème fraîche. ("I'm having a very good meal," she beamed.) I was also beguiled by my ropa nueva, the shredding reserved for the braised beef ragout served alongside the marinated skirt steak and puréed boniato (a white-fleshed Cuban sweet potato). And though I missed the succulent, long-cooked pork familiar from a thousand meals at Versailles, I appreciated Chester's medallones de cerdo, sautéed pork medallions with a light tomato coulis, served with fufu, another take on plantains, this time mashed with yams. We were less taken with the big guava-glazed barbecue ribs and an enchilado de camarones of stewed tiger prawns. The bowls of white rice and extraordinarily good soupy black beans (jazzed up with diced bright peppers as small as confetti) were classically Cuban, but I did long for the traditional plates of fried plantains that are an invariable accompaniment in my usual Cuban haunts.

We ordered one each of all the desserts (coconut flan, warm banana tart, baked pineapple crisp) and were extremely pleased. Habana had knocked one out of the park, as far as we were concerned.

I returned for a solitary supper. I was cosseted by the thoughtful hostess, who led me to a window table when she thought that the light at the slightly cramped, triangular deuce overlooking the bar at which she'd originally seated me was inadequate to the book that was my companion. The equally thoughtful waiter asked if I was going to the opera, probably because of the early hour and the alacrity with which I ordered my dinner: I was actually headed to The Constant Wife at ACT, though I hadn't planned to mention it; I had plenty of time to enjoy my meal. And enjoy it I did -- a lovely ceviche cocktail of shrimp, mango, and jicama bathed in mint, and a pan-roasted chicken breast with an "angry orange" sauce, not so much angry, I thought, as silky, with plump little croqueticas of melty Gouda cheese and a couple of mellow roasted garlic cloves. I hoped Mr. DuVall would keep Habana around for a while.

About The Author

Meredith Brody


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