According to 3guysfrommiami.com – “Legend has it that Versailles started its life as a French restaurant -- on Calle Ocho? The French format didn't work so well, but the facility and the location proved ideal for Cuban Felipe Valls, Sr. who created this now legendary restaurant back in 1971.”
When my wife and I met friends at Versailles last night we were once again amazed by the crystal chandeliers, candelabras, and gilded mirrors with backlit cherubic etchings that suggested the namesake French Chateau. As a tuxedoed gentleman greeted us and helped us locate our group I was struck by the crowd and the atmosphere: parties of two, four, or more enjoying soup, coffee, baskets of bread…sounds of children laughing, jingling silverware and chairs being moved as waiters rushed about balancing overloaded trays of steaming food. The aromas of coffee, warm cakes, and fresh baked bread convinced me…we were in a Diner!
Versailles is a hustling, bustling, embodiment of an old town Havana Diner chock full of Cuban authenticity. No wonder this place is so popular with the locals!
As we sat down our waiter delivered press toasted bread with a just dusting of butter. Crisp on the outside, warm and doughy on the inside, with just a hint of garlic, it made me realize how hungry I was. Not to worry! The bread was immediately followed by trays of appetizer samplers someone had already ordered. We sampled Empanadas filled with cheese, Croquetas filled with minced ham, Yucca fries, and Plantain chips with an interesting creamy, garlicky dipping sauce infused with mint.
Our friend Robert raised an eyebrow towards me as the waiter brought a little plastic cup of something. I think there was a glimmer in his eye as he drizzled the contents over some of the plantain chips. Wow! That homemade “Mojo” delivered a serious garlic kick to the chips. We had a laugh as I commented that the fried appetizers paired quite well with the effervescence of the Mojitos.
Ever the adventurer I ordered the Lengua Asada (Beef Tongue slow cooked in its own gravy) much to the chagrin of my wife who ordered Chicken in a garlic sauce. Also ordered was a Baby Churrasco (Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce), Chicken Milanesa (Breaded and sautéed then baked topped with a thin slice of ham, creamy tomato sauce, and cheese), Stewed Ox Tails, and one Croqueta Preparada (a sandwich of ham and spiced pork with mustard, pickles, swiss cheese, and two chicken or ham croquetas). The prices here are an exceptional value with only two of our entrees topping out at $12.95.
As expected I had to put up with some goodhearted wisecracks from the peanut gallery as I enjoyed my Beef Tongue dish but enjoy it I did. It tasted like the most velvety tender pot roast one could imagine with a thin gravy that added a new dimension of flavor when sopped up with the black beans and rice. I ate every bite along with the interestingly prepared plantains; sliced on a bias and probably tossed on a griddle much like home fries they were soft and sweet inside with tasty caramelized bits on the outside.
The Chicken in garlic sauce was moist and perfectly cooked breast tenderloins in an intense garlic gravy over white rice. The sauce was almost too garlicky for me but my wife loved it. More to my liking was the very tender Baby Churrasco steak grilled to a perfect medium rare with a Chimichurri sauce of parsley, green onions and yes, more garlic! Churrasco is one of my favorite Cuban dishes and this is one of the better versions I have tried. It is probably second only, in my book, to the house Churrasco at El Siboney in Key West.
Though I did not sample the other dishes at our table I heard no complaints. The Ox Tails looked as though they were prepared with care with a nice caramelized sear before slow stewing (Judging by the look of sheer joy on my friend Herman’s face as he devoured every trace I may have to try these the next time we visit). The Chicken Milanesa looked interesting and I will probably have to try a Croqueta Preparada one of these days as well. I simply didn’t have room to sample it all. Proportions over all were plenty generous without being over the top. However, we were all too full to order dessert.
Service was very good as usual. We had a waiter with two assistants for our party of 6. They were formal yet friendly and attentive without being overbearing, keeping glasses full and whisking away empty plates. We never felt rushed.
As we lingered over café con leches I enjoyed the people watching and the culture reminiscent of what Havana surely must have been like in its heyday. I was comfortable sharing this warm moment with friends as we laughed and enjoyed the ambiance.
I have read varying reviews here on Versailles and it is by no means a gourmet restaurant. The food, while good, is not fine dining or “knock your socks off” Cubano cuisine. If that is what you seek then look elsewhere.
Versailles is, for all intents and purpose, a neighborhood Diner. For me though, it is also a state of mind.
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