Cuba Libre’s Old World Service Shines

Walking into Washington’s Cuba Libre, expectations were high for this small chain restaurant. The open-air courtyard, while a bit Disneyesque, creates a real dining experience, successfully transporting guests to another time and place. Balconies and stucco facades, tropical plants and colors and Latino sounds will likely create a welcome respite in the dead of a Washington winter.

At Guillermo Pernot’s Cuba Libre, the service is what shines—welcome to Old World hospitality that hits the right note from start to finish. The dining room is highly organized and there isn’t a moment when the staff has a blasé attitude about serving customers. The management has truly created an experience where guests feel welcome.. I couldn’t help but wonder why every restaurant is not managed like this: seriously with precision. I had almost forgotten what great service was like, long before the days of celebrity chefs and haughty servers who begrudgingly serve your meal with an extra helping of condescension. Let’s hope they keep it up.

Knowledge and training are evident everywhere you look and it does indeed matter to the diner’s experience. If you are on the curious side, go ahead and ask the server to explain the dish to you, you will be delighted to know that they know the menu inside and out. Our waitress explained the drinks in detail, which was impressive considering the dozens of rum and  tropically infused cocktail options on the bar menu. Every option felt special and hand-crafted in some way so it was hard to decide. We tried the passionfruit mojito which was not too sweet, slightly tart and just right with a few fresh sprigs of mint.

The menu is unlike others that you may have seen. Billed as Nuevo-Cuban inspired, Pernot asks: What would Cuban cuisine look like had the revolution not transpired? We started with the house-cured smoked duck with roasted corn salsa and Huitlacoche vinaigrette. The thin, delicately smoky duck slices melted on the tongue and were perfectly paired with just the right amount of tangy vinaigrette. The duck was so tasty we wished we had ordered another. Our second appetizer was the Chicharrones de la Casa, a heaping plate of crisp chicken, skirt steak, pork and chorizo with yucca bites. While the portion was large, the lime garlic marinade needed more zing to leave a lasting impression on the palette and the yucca was bland. Lastly, we had the Atun Fire and Ice big eye tuna with jalapeno coconut ginger sauce. The highly quality chunks of tuna were savory, however, the Chef could have been more creative in punctuating the fish.

Cuba Libre’s main entrées could be limiting for diners who are unfamiliar with Latin cuisine but it does offer a variety of textures and tastes, from mild to spicy.  The whole boneless fillet of Australian sea bass a la plancha (meaning grilled on a metal plate) was delicate and fresh, however the accompanying side was Asian-overload. The frozen-food-like clumps of rice doused in soy sauce took away from the fish. Another side such as a paella would have been more suitable. We also tried the Ropa Vieja, Spanish for ‘Old Clothes’, a positive nod to Old World traditions. No creative alterations are necessary, as the dish stands on its own. Tender, tomato soaked beef brisket chunks sit amidst onions, peppers peas and a light wine flavor permeates throughout the dish without overpowering the meat. One would be hard-pressed to find a better Ropa Vieja this side of the border, outside of the Miami-Dade area.

Finally, our server exuberantly presented the dessert options. The Tres Leches de Banana is a must-have at Cuba Libre. The banana milks soak the moist vanilla sponge cake and the banana tastes natural, unlike many area restaurants which over-do the banana flavoring additives and ruin a perfectly good dessert.

Prices are very reasonable considering the portions, quality, service and atmosphere, which is why Cuba Libre is sure to create many return visits with its one-of-a-kind brand of Old World Havana style dining and Cuban panache for service.

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