I have a confession to make: when it comes to Cuban cuisine, my knowledge is pretty much limited to ropa vieja and the oh-so-delicious sandwich with its pork, ham, cheese, pickles and mustard. Cuba is a blank spot on my culinary map, and the dearth of Cuban restaurants in the district hasn’t done anything to help that. But all that can change tonight, courtesy of Cuba Libre.
It’s official. Tonight is opening night, and after a few days of soft service it looks like they’re ready to go. The latest in a line of recent DC imports (the original is in Philadelphia and they’ve also got locations in Atlantic City and Orlando), Cuba Libre will be bringing an updated version of Cuban and Latin classics to Chinatown.
If you’re wondering what took so long (besides the fact that Cuba Libre is opening in Washington, DC) you need only look around when you step inside and you’ll see. The restaurant goes out of its way to make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to pre-revolution Havana…or at least the idealized version of pre-revolution Havana. It’s like you’ve sneaked onto the set of Godfather II.
No expense has been spared to create that atmosphere. Above the dining area (the space is two floors high), facades have been created by Kevin Hale with a set designer’s eye for detail. Stucco building-fronts feature backlit windows and real curtains. A mural presents a Cuban street scene in one corner of the space. The long, pale wooden bar was recovered from Havana’s Hotel Nacional. It’s all tastefully accomplished – this isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean: the Restaurant.
More interior photos and a look at what Cuba Libre offers to eat and drink after the jump. Inside, the restaurant can accommodate more than 200 people. The vast space is divided into a number of dining areas, each with its own vibe. Calle Nueve (9th Street), faces onto its namesake and functions as a lounge area by the bar. With lampposts and wrought iron, it feels like a pedestrian street scene. A private dining room toward the back of the space is wired with audio-visual equipment and features some impressive casement windows that open onto the lounge. And that mural provides a colorful backdrop for diners in the front corner of the restaurant.
But let’s be honest – all the detailed decor in the world can only take a restaurant so far. Cuba Libre will succeed or fail on the strength of its dishes as conceptualized by Chef Guillermo Pernot and executed by Chef Jason Kaufman. The menu is described as “Nuevo Cubano,” and Pernot likes to explain it as the kind of cuisine that Cuba would be known for today if they had been allowed to develop a real culinary culture over the last fifty years.
Cuba Libre DC will offer something that none of its predecessors have: small plates. Our reputation as a tapas-kind of town precedes us, and Chef Pernot has responded with a section of the menu dedicated to Piqueos. Truffle and citrus-marinated octopus, smoked duck with corn salsa and casava fries are made to be sampled and shared, with price tags ranging from $5 to $7.50. With the ceviches and entrees that Cuba Libre’s other locations are famous for, this makes for an impressive variety of dining options.
And to wash it all down? They’ve got you covered with a bar that favors rum,as you might expect. They offer 70 different rums, including six house labels (white, dark, spiced, 5-year aged, 15-year aged, and 21-year aged). And they put them to good use in 14 different mojitos made with some unique flourishes of their own.
For starters, the bartenders here don’t muddle the mint in their mojitos. They take the time to hand-tear the Israeli mint, allowing more of its essential oils to be released, they say. They also don’t rely on simple syrup to sweeten their beverages, opting instead to press sugar cane and use the guarapo juice that is extracted as a natural sweetener. And the flavors run the gamut from traditional to borderline disconcerting: beet and basil, anyone?
Cuba Libre opens for dinner service tonight, and to “reward our patience” they’ve decided to roll out a tiered discount program over the next two weeks. From now until October 7th, diners will get 50% off their meals. From the 8th until the 13th, the discount scales back to 25% off. The full price menu will take effect on October 14th. Lunch service will begin on the 20th, featuring a “Cuban bento box” that will offer a rotation of six four-dish menus from week to week. And brunch service will begin that weekend on October 23rd.
Once the restaurant has settled into its groove, there are plans to take advantage of the space for dancing and music later at night. They’re considering dance classes and DJ nights at some point, but the food comes first. Sounds like a recipe for success.