There has been buzz growing for quite some time about Cuba Libre, a new upscale Cuban restaurant in Penn Quarter. The mini-chain has other locations in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and Orlando, but this is the company’s first foray into DC. When we heard that not only were they opening October 1st, but that for the first week all food items would be 50% off, we snagged a reservation on OpenTable right away. We somehow were able to add our friends as well, so the four of us ventured there on Wednesday to check it out.
(Note: apologies for the camera phone pictures. We had showed up with our actual camera only to find out that the battery was not charged, so we had to make due with Rachel’s Android instead. C’est la vie!)
We arrived for our 8pm reservation and the place was packed, notably with people crowding the bar area. The place itself is pretty impressive, with balconies overhead and colorful walls that made it look like you’re stepping into Havana, not that most of us would know what that looks like given that we’ve never actually been to the Caribbean country, but I digress.
While waiting for our friends we decided to try some of their supposedly famous mojitos. There are 14 varieties to choose from, as well as specialty cocktails, caipirinhas, an extensive rum menu, and of course beer and wine. I decided to try the grilled pineapple mojito after hearing a recommendation from a friend on Facebook, and Brett went for the classic variation. They even had flavors such as an energy mojito with Red Bull, and one that included basil and beet puree. Both of ours were tasty, but I definitely think I liked mine better of the two.
The menu is broken out into Piqueos, or small tasting plates, aperitivos (appetizers), ceviches, and entrees. We were told that the ceviche is what they are known for, and the James Beard award-winning chef of the chain even has a cookbook dedicated to them. So we opted for the sample of all five varieties.
Normally, we would have just left it at that, but since in the back of our minds we knew everything was half price, we decided to also go for an appetizer of Mariquitas Cubana, which was essentially a trio of dips with different chips to try. The dips were a black bean hummus, rum-cured smoked marlin salad, and Haitian eggplant spread, essentially a play on Mediterranean dips. The chips were plantain, malanga, and yucca, and looked like large Terra chips to me.
We figured the ceviches would be smaller since it was a sampler, but we were able to taste each one. They included smoked salmon, diced tuna, scallops, shrimp, and Maryland lump crab. It was nice to see a local touch on the menu with the crab, although we were skeptical about how it would taste in a ceviche. Some were definitely better than others. The salmon had roe on top and a dusting of popcorn which provided an interesting flavor combination, but the winners in our opinion were the scallop and crab ceviches.
The dips were reasonable and definitely something different than your traditional hummus or eggplant. The smoked fish salad tasted more like a traditional white fish salad, something I would normally eat with bagels and lox than at a Cuban restaurant. Overall, the spread was nothing spectacular and the portions of each dip were small, especially to share. For the regular price of $13, I don’t think I would get it again.
There were several different choices for entrees, with most of them being Cuban-inspired but with a twist from the chef. Again, since everything was half off, we probably looked at the menu a little differently than we normally would have as we went for the dishes that were more on the expensive end. Brett got the Bife de Nueva York which was a 12 ounce strip steak with caramelized shallots, steamed kale, polenta fries and accompanied with tamarind ketchup and steak sauce. The entrée normally costs $32, and since Brett is already a steak lover, he opted to go with that.
I was torn between several dishes; either the paella with black forbidden rice, whole boneless sea bass, filet of salmon, or BBQ shrimp. I decided to try the jumbo shrimp, or Camarones con Cana, which was prepared in a mango BBQ glaze. I was a little skeptical with the sides, which were listed as “crispy Anaheim pepper stuffed with creamy quinoa, sweet potato and Mascarpone cheese.” It was also served with chunky guacamole as well.
The shrimp were great, some of the biggest I’ve seen, and the sauce on them had a nice flavor, especially eaten together with the guac. It was the side of the pepper that I felt didn’t really fit with the rest of the dish. I thought it would be a green pepper with some quinoa inside, but it wound up being a huge, fried jalapeno pepper with a creamy mixture within. It was essentially a giant jalapeño popper. Granted, I ate most of it, but I felt fairly ill after and thought it was way too heavy compared to the lightness of the shrimp. It might have been paired better with black beans and rice instead.
Brett thought his steak was excellently cooked as the kitchen perfectly accommodated his medium-rare request. The steak was supposedly marinated but Brett thought it was more on the dryer side but was tender nonetheless. The provided steak sauce helped things as it had its own unique flavor while the polenta fires and tamarind ketchup were a nice compliment to the dish.
Our friends got the paella and the sea bass and liked both of their dinners as well. This night was a case when I had food envy and wish I had chosen one of those dishes instead. Don’t get me wrong, I liked mine overall, but I think I would have enjoyed one of those better.
We were all pretty stuffed at that point, but again, at half off the food bill, we thought in order to give a full report we should order some dessert too. We all shared the Torta de Chocolate y Dulce de Leche, basically a chocolate lava cake. The soufflé was layered with dulce de leche, and served with dulce de leche ice cream, a chocolate orange sauce, and blueberry compote. If I was not so full I would have devoured it, but the few bites I had were delicious. The server told us if we liked chocolate that we should get this dessert, and she was ultimately right.
When we got our bill, it was enclosed in a large wooden box. We noticed other tables had this as well. Some tables received cigar boxes while others, such as ours, received ones suited for baccarat. We said this was something that seemed like a good idea in theory, but could increasingly get annoying with the awkwardness of carrying around boxes and having customers dig into a box to fish out different credit card receipts. We wouldn’t be surprised if they did away with it within a few months.
The 50% off deal is a great idea, both for the diners and the restaurant itself. Customers get a chance to try different things on the menu and splurge a little since everything (excluding beverages) is discounted. The restaurant is able to feel its way the first week or two if some dishes are a miss as well as hear feedback from the diners. Plus, if service is bad or if something is off, it’s hard to complain when you’re getting such a great deal. The 50% special is over, but you can still take advantage of 25% off food items from October 8th through 13th.
Overall, we felt it was a fun, new addition to the DC dining scene. The service was fairly slow and a little uneven, but we’ll chalk that up to first week opening craziness. One thing that was a big turnoff was the kitschy Cuban music in the background. It was loud and distracting, and didn’t add anything to our dining experience. The food was good and unique, but didn’t wow us by any means. Looking at what the prices normally are, we all agreed we would be hard pressed to come back and order the same dishes. Most of them were in the upper $20 range, and while that is now becoming the standard for nicer restaurants in the DC area, some of the dishes just didn’t seem to warrant those prices. Especially with specialty drinks like the mojitos costing $10 or more, the meal could easily rack up to at least $100 or more for two people.
The website currently doesn’t offer much information about the DC location outside of saying that it is officially open. You can view the menus if you go to the other cities, and they all seem to be fairly similar. I would say to definitely check it out if you’re curious, but I could honestly see myself going back more for a girls’ night of drinks at the bar than for a date night.