Cuban Mojito Crisis

Havana restaurant does Cali-Cuban right, but would Che Panisse serve strawberrijitos?

The Cuban salsa blaring from the speakers sends up almost involuntary ripples of rhythm in my party. We sway in our booths as we sip our mojitos. But the Havana restaurant looks more like Miami than its namesake city. Exposed aluminum pipes flow around the edges of the industrial room, and a long, high table flanked by rows of tall stools stretches between its central columns. The ice-blue walls are accented by a vivid turquoise bar at the back end.

Like the decor, the food at this new Walnut Creek restaurant — which opened up just around the corner from the North Main Street strip three months ago — pays homage to Cuban cuisine without striving for complete authenticity. It’s Cuban food slimmed down and spruced up. One imagines that, had Castro not taken over, this is the kind of food that the slinky, Prada-clad scions of Havana’s elite would be nibbling while chatting up their party planners on their jeweled cell phones.

The California-Cuban theme was dreamed up by the owners, Zack Scott and Jeff Dudum, who noticed that there weren’t any other Cuban restaurants around the area. They brought in Noah Larson of Oakland small-plate restaurant À Côté to oversee the kitchen.

It appears that Scott and Dudum — who are also connected to Echo, one of Walnut Creek’s sleekest spots — are building their business around a trendy Cuban cocktail, the mojito. They’ve taken the rum-and-mint refresher and made a chocolatini out of it: Havana’s beverage menu lists eight or nine iterations of the drink sorority sisters all over the country have adopted as their own. Nothing feels quite as summery as sipping out of the tall, thin glasses in which chopped mint has been muddled and then swizzled with light rum, simple syrup, lime juice, and soda water. Mojitos go as well as any of the wines on the short, California-heavy wine list with the robust, fruity flavors of the food. But applejitos? Strawberrijitos? If they’re as headache-sweet as the colada mojito I tried, I’d be happy to leave them to the Kappa Phis.

When there’s a mojito glass on every table, the noise bounces off the cement walls and careens around the room, making everyone holler to be heard. The service isn’t quite coordinated yet, either. Our first night’s waiter was cheery and on the ball. But on my second visit, our waiter noted our order on his hand, and then must have washed it off, because he delivered the wrong salad and forgot one of the other appetizers. Then he ostentatiously put our check on the table when he delivered dessert — which makes me grind my teeth when I’m paying more than $10 per person — and regularly stepped back over from flirting with the hostess to see if we’d paid up.

But the food is, on the whole, becoming assured. There are two ways to eat dinner: small or big. Appetizers are “tapas,” for anyone who wants to eat a selection as a light meal. These include grilled seafood, salads, a Cuban pork sandwich, and twice-fried plantains, or tostones, which are found all over the Caribbean. Green, starchy plantains are cut into short lengths and fried once, then mashed and fried again. The salty and crunchy chips taste more like taro than banana, but the kicky salsa that accompanies them, which seamlessly merges pineapple and roasted red pepper, brings out the hint of fruit. Tiny round scoops of puréed yucca — as starchy as potato but without its distinctively earthy character — are deep-fried into crisp dark-brown fritters. A vivid cilantro and lime sauce sets off grilled shrimp on a bed of Spanish rice.

The salads are serviceably pleasant. A whiff of pineapple juice animates the vinaigrette on a simple green salad. But I couldn’t taste any apple in the apple vinaigrette topping a romaine salad with pickled red onion, grilled chicken breast, and mango; the salad suffered from the dressing’s lack of character.

The entrées riff off the tropical notes in Cuban cuisine. The sliced pork tenderloin is basted with a flavorful mojo (the quintessential garlicky Cuban marinade) that caramelizes into a glossy coating in the oven. I dipped each slice of the moist pink meat into a pool of extra mojo, which tasted as if it was made with sweet oranges, not the sour oranges of Cuba, but nevertheless played off the meat beautifully. A pool of well-seasoned black beans and a huge dollop of a buttery, mildly sweet boniato (yam) purée came alongside. My two neighbors got one taste of my purée and finished it off for me.

The same beans, along with a lackluster Spanish rice, back up the mango chicken. Larson rubs a chicken breast with garlic and fresh oregano before roasting it. It comes thickly covered with a mango salsa that balances out the sweet mango with sharp onions and jalapeños so that the fruit doesn’t overpower the chicken. However, the flavor of a juicy, long-marinated hangar steak is so engaging that the sweet-tart pineapple salsa that tops it is only a distraction. The black beans and rice that come with all of these entrées can be ordered as a side dish called “Moors and Christians,” named after the colors of the two ingredients. Normally, the two are cooked together, but at Havana the Moors and Christians share separate but equal sides of the plate.

Though Havana’s meats are always cooked precisely to temperature, a few of the dishes don’t come together around them. Cumin is one of Cuba’s predominant spices, but it’s best used to give body to a mix of spices, not standing on its own. As a crust for seared ahi tuna, it bowls over the delicate fish, as rare at the center as God intended it to be. And the paella could use a little more authenticity, Spanish or Cuban. The big bowl of rice emanates saffron but also salt, and instead of soaking up every drop of flavorful stock while remaining fluffy, the rice is bogged down with broth which pools at the bottom of the bowl. We picked out the chicken, clams, prawns, and chorizo, leaving the rice behind.

The menu at Havana is expanding slowly as the cooks build it up dish by dish. Dessert is the last to take off. There’s a flan but nothing else yet. If you like flan, which doesn’t seem to have any tepid admirers — the world is divided into flan-lovers and flan-haters — Havana’s creamy, lightly caramelized custard won’t do you wrong.

Homesick Cubans will still have to fly down to Los Angeles or Miami to taste the food their grandmothers used to cook them, but diners less wedded to tradition will find some lively, well-prepared fusion fare here. Just don’t let them mess with your mojito.


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