I will be the first to admit that I have been avoiding Cuba Libre since it opened. I made a premature decision that it was not for me given its Disney-like interior and chain restaurant affiliation. However, I was invited to join the restaurant's publicist Lindley Thornburg for lunch yesterday, and was excited to finally put the food to the test. Lindley made it clear that the food is first and foremost at Cuba Libre, as the Concept Chef and Partner Guillermo Pernot is a two-time James Beard award winner. The restaurant strives to provide authentic dishes that "envision what Cuba’s cuisine would be like today, if it had continued to flourish beyond the golden era of the 1950s". In addition to the food, Cuba Libre has an extensive cocktail list that includes over 14 types of mojitos that are made from sugarcane juice that is pressed daily in-house.
The generous manager Amnon gave us the choice to order off the menu or to have him (along with the chef) hand select the dishes for us. I deferred to the experts and let the food roll out one surprise dish after the next. The piqueos, or small plates, came out first which included the African adobo-rubbed charred tuna with fresh hearts of palm and avocado, meatballs with beef, pork, and pinenuts, spinach and manchego cheese puffs, guacamole with plantain chips and pineapple, jumbo lump crab meat ceviche with smoked cheddar cheese and candied peanut salsa, and the organic salmon ceviche with orange salad, blood orange-passion fruit sauce, and salmon caviar. I loved the acidity and peanut crunch of the crab ceviche and the meatballs were glazed with a wonderful chino sauce creating a great flavor. The spinach and cheese puffs were reminiscent of comfort food, but there was almost nothing I tried that I didn't enjoy. The food is surprisingly good, and the beet and basil mojito I had was unique and imaginative.
Following the small plates the kitchen brought out a plata gaucho for us to share which included skirt steak, grilled shrimp, marinated chicken breast, and chorizo sausage with chimichurri and garlic dipping sauces. All tasted quite good and I loved the chimichurri sauce, but I actually think I could have been content sticking with the piqueos as it was more than enough food and allowed for us to try a variety of things.
For dessert we split the Torta Mentirita or a rum-soaked cake with lime sorbet and Coca-Cola sauce. Amnon also insisted that we try a special Coquito (Puerto Rican eggnog) for the holiday which was quite strong yet very tasty and festive.
Cuba Libre's interior is intricate, elaborate, and very inspired. One might call it kitschy, but I have to say that the food was solid with bold colors and flavors and fresh ingredients. I will admit that I was proven wrong on this one, and I promise it's not just the mojito talking.
801 9th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001