A few things have happened in Cuba over the past 10 years. Russia’s last military base on the island closed. The country won “Axis of Evil” status from the Bush administration. Jimmy Carter visited (a first for a current or past U.S. president), stumping for a group of pro-democratic dissidents who were petitioning for free speech and elections. A bunch of those dissidents were then tossed in jail. Dollar-based transactions were banned, a hurricane came through, and finally, after nearly half a century, Fidel Castro stepped down from power.
At Cuba Libre, not so much. In Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen’s Disneyesque simulacrum of a Havana streetscape, it’s always the season of Caribbean contentment. Thirty feet beneath the great and lazy fronds of a quartet of tropical paddle fans, the Old City pretty suck down mojitos made with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice amidst a nostalgic wonderland of jonquil-yellow colonnades, terra-cotta roof tiles, and stone balconies lined with potbelly wrought-iron railings. There’s been the occasional change in the kitchen, the occasional tweak of the menu, but essentially it’s been a decade of coasting.
That changed soon after the restaurant’s 10th birthday. The partners retuned the decor, revamped the lighting, retrained the staff, and—in the only change that truly matters—unleashed chef Guillermo Pernot to drop over 25 new dishes into a menu that no one ever accused of being undersized to begin with.
Pernot, who rejoined Cuba Libre in 2006, just before the closure of Pasión (he’d been a consultant when it originally opened), has been tooling around Cuba lately, and judging from a recent meal, his travels have inspired him.
The surprises began early with a plate of baby octopus unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Center City has no shortage of kitchens offering baby octopuses—Philly excels in the eight-armed-animal department in general—but the specimens passed off as babies everywhere else are great honking sea monsters next to the ones sprinkled like popcorn atop a smoky, spicy, sesame-tinged mound of mashed eggplant that hit the Asian-Caribbean fusion bull’s-eye. These char-edged baby octos could have swum through a child bride’s wedding ring. They could have been served on nickels without blocking the view of Thomas Jefferson’s ponytail. But they could not have been any more addictively delicious.
More six-dollar (yet sharable!) small plates rolled out of the kitchen, each one delivering its own unique sensation—which can be a challenge when working within a cuisine that can too easily get boiled down to pork and heavy starches. There was a bright ceviche of thinly sliced scallops and grapefruit sections in a sunset-colored broth of blood orange juice and passion fruit. Paper-thin slices of smoked duck fanned out beneath a dollop of roasted corn salsa, the deep garnet meat and cream-colored fat forming a canvas for burnt-umber streaks of just-funky-enough huitlacoche vinaigrette. Meanwhile, some anonymous line cook was putting on a deep-fryer clinic with taro-root fritters whose brittle, lacy shells crackled over interiors as moist (and as stringy, in the same good way) as a mayo-rich crab salad, and buñuelos that exploded on the tongue like molten grenades of manchego-creamed spinach.
It’s a flexible approach to Cuban food, and more or less without exception among the small plates, it paid off. In Pernot’s “Raise the Dead” soup, scallops, mussels and shrimp mingled in a “China-Cubano” broth that rang the same lime-and-coconut bells as a Thai tom kha, even approximating that soup’s mushrooms with a judicious few drops of truffle oil. It was terrific, even if I’m not sure (never having traveled there) if you’d find quite the same thing in Havana.
That said, the traditional entrées remain on the menu: vaca frita, ropa vieja and all the rest. We ate only two, and felt the meal begin, ever so slightly, to flag. The shreds of brisket in the ropa vieja were as chewy as wet rope. The pulled pork of the lechon asado was splendidly juicy with sour orange, but I wanted more out of its smashed-yuca substrate, which had some of the spice of Amarillo chili but seemed to have locked away its sweet fruitiness.
There were a couple of service hiccups. The guava barbecue ribs our waiter plugged so enthusiastically never arrived, and my pisco sour was unclouded by egg white and served absent foam. But those ribs never made it to the bill, either, and the pisco sour was swiftly stricken from it.
Dessert delivered us back to our early highs. There was a finessed banana tres leches, a fallen chocolate soufflé tart whose feather-light texture rang the taste buds for 10 seconds after it had melted away, and also coffee, with the bitter edges rounded out by spiced rum or Mexican chocolate. Or you could do away with coffee altogether, as I did with a way-out-of-character weeknight request for a flight of aged rums. There was just something in the fan-swirled air (by this time no longer frozen halfway to the sleet point by an initially overcranked A/C) that encouraged surrender to this preposterously concocted but nevertheless copasetic atmosphere. The food had been soulful and the company warm, and the bill, when it arrived, fairly shocked me with its affordability.
It may be a long way from the authentic Havana, but it’s good to discover that Cuba Libre’s long season of Caribbean contentment hasn’t lulled it into complacency.