My housemate and I decided to stroll down Park St. Saturday night and check out the new outpost of Havana. Caveat: I don't know anything about Cuban food, and I don't have any pre-conceived ideas about what various dishes "should" be like.
We strolled in a little after 7 pm and caught them in the middle of a rush. They don't take reservations for parties under 8, and I'd suggest they rethink that, as one thing reservations do is help pace the clientele, so you don't have people standing around waiting for tables at 7:00 and a half-empty restaurant at 8:30 (this is Alameda, after all, they roll up the sidewalks pretty early, even on Saturday). At any rate, the service definitely had problems that need to be ironed out (more later), and they clearly were disorganized (not too surprising for a restaurant that's only been open a couple of weeks, but considering that it's not their first location, I expected them to have a better grasp of the basics).
We had a round of drinks -- the mojito wasn't minty enough for me. For a restaurant that specializes in them, I would have expected better. It wasn't bad, just not as good as the surprisingly good mojitos at, of all places, Ching Hua down the street. When the Chinese restaurant serves better mojitos than the Cuban one, that's not a good sign!
When we were seated, we ordered a round of "tapas." The big pile of boniato garlic fries came with two dipping sauces: a (guava?) chipotle sauce (didn't taste guava, seemed like chipotle ketchup to me, but it was tasty), and chimichurri (needed more punch ... salt, acid, garlic, all three?). The shimp ceviche came with yucca chips that had apparently been impregnated with cayenne at some point -- although the shrimp were a little skimpy, it turned out to be a pretty good version of chips and salsa (one of my favorite foods), with the fresh, cool ceviche, crunchy chips and then cayenne after burn. I think, though, that next time I'll try the halibut ceviche, which looked very pretty in a martini glass.
For our entrees, we both went with fish. I had the grilled swordfish with romesco sauce, which came with sofrito rice and "seasonal vegetables." The swordfish was cut thin and thus was a little well-done for my taste -- but then, I guess I could have asked them to cook it medium rare. The romesco sauce was delicious, and the veggies turned out to be sauteed haricot vert, which were salty, oily, slightly charred and addictive. The rice was nothing special. I'm not much for beans, but from the way everyone was raving about the black bean soup, black beans might be the way to go on the sides. My housemate ordered what on the menu is plantain-crusted halibut with tomatillo-avocado salsa (they had actually subbed in blue-nosed bass). She seemed happy with it -- it did not appear to be overcooked.
For dessert, she had the flan, which was very good, and I had the raspberry and mango sorbets, which weren't all that good. I'd give the mango a B-minus but the raspberry had a flavor I couldn't put my finger on (I asked if there was something else in it, and the waiter said it was just raspberry), but that bumped it down to a C-minus (don't mess with my raspberry sorbet).
I thought the food was basically competent, but the service needs a lot of work. They didn't seem to have a system for taking names and then finding you when your table was ready, and the woman who took our initial drink order first combined our tab with the woman next to us, then gave us the wrong tab, and finally ended up not giving us a tab for the drinks at all. I would have felt a little more guilty about that if they hadn't charged me for a regular mojito when I ordered a virgin mojito with my meal. Then they slapped the check down before asking us if we wanted dessert, and we had to flag down a waiter to order dessert (our waitress having disappeared).
Overall, though, I enjoyed my meal and I will probably go back, maybe focussing more on the "tapas" than the entrees. Alameda definitely needs a restaurant like this: lively, slightly upscale -- my housemate really enjoyed to decor, which feature huge photos of Cuban scenes -- but at a reasonable price point (entrees all under $20). They certainly seemed to have pulled a very diverse crowd that was enjoying itself. I'm guessing the food, while it met the "did it taste good" test, would not satisfy someone who was looking for "real deal" Cuban food.
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