Hoboken recently had the addition of not only one Cuban restaurant, but two. (Check out my review for the other newcomer, Havana). Both came about at the same time, causing confusion, but also excitement. The Cuban is on Washington Street, amongst other restaurants with outdoor seating when the weather is right. It consists of more than one dining area and a bar in the first area right off the street.
The front window was open letting the street in and the live music out. There is live music on Thursday nights, transporting the diner out of Hoboken and closer to Cuba with the food and music. The first dining area is lined a booth and tables while the bar danced on the other side. The colors hot and cool, trendy and vivacious, with artsy lamps, black furniture and sexy red walls. The narrow dining area is beautiful, delicious with color and heat.
The menu is not huge, but full of Cuban flavors from hefty appetizers to meat and fish entrees. The list of appetizers is much more intriguing than the entrees, mainly because of the special ingredients with gourmet accents like a jalapeño truffle aioli.
Mar y Tierra was a surf’n’turf appetizer with pork with scallops along with pureed black beans. The presentation of the appetizer showed mild artistic restraint and planning, but at the same time looked over the top. It was not what I was expecting as my recent pork belly exploits looked more like half raw bacon rashers. This was crispy and stringy, moist in some bites and crunchy in others. The festive toppings added nice counter points to the fatty pork—the thinly sliced green apple added brightness and cut some of the richness with the refreshing tartness, while the watercress brought a different kind of green and earthy liveliness. The two different kind of onions were a great addition as well, the white onions sweeter, while the pickled red ones had more tang and bite. A nicely seared scallop floated on either side, and went really nicely with the black been puree. Their disparate textures created a nice play off of each other; the scallops smoothness countered the graininess of the paste.
Despite being on the same plate, the scallops and the pork felt like two entirely separate entities. The black bean paste and the kind of sherry vinaigrette floating on the plate were efforts to create and maintain a unity between the sea and land, but in some ways those efforts failed. The bean paste did not meld with the pork as well as it matched the scallops. Perhaps it was because of what was a mass of complex and varied flavors that topped the pork, and the addition of the beans became too much. The swirled sherry glaze really heightened the flavors of the pork, as well as the apple slaw that crowned it, adding that extra bite to lighten the load. However, that same mixture dimmed the sweetness of the scallops.
The pulpo, ordered at the suggestion of our waiter, was roasted octopus with a white bean puree, crispy potatoes and an avocado lime vinaigrette. The octopus itself was so tender and succulent, soft and buttery. It was smooth and exotic but not strong in flavor. It literally felt like the consistency of butter on the tongue in a weird and intriguing way. Even though it was solid, it was not chewy, but almost creamy in the mouth. The white bean puree was not strongly flavored either, but added a more gritty grainy texture to counter the oddly creamy octopus. In a way the juxtaposition brought the dish back to reality for the tongue, making it more tangible.
Unfortunately, the lime avocado was a mistake. It caused a major clash with the other elements and it was too tangy for the richness of the octopus. The lime overpowered the avocado and anything else it touched. A subtler hint of lime would have created a different dynamic with its rich counterparts, bringing out a different flavor profile. The ratio was off. The crispy potatoes were also a misstep, even though the crunchiness served as a kind of counter point, they were dry and unappealing.
The Cuban’s ropa vieja was a rendition of a typical Cuban stewed steak with peppers, onions and tomatoes, served with rice. The meat was very tender and stringy and almost disappeared in the mouth. Most all of the texture and taste of the meat was lost, but the kind of stringiness reminded the tongue of what it used to be. It was salty—perhaps the only flavor, as there was no heat and the other veggies were lost. This ropa vieja was almost the complete opposite of the appetizers, which were vibrant and varied; the stew had none of the interest or complexity. It was also greasy; a sheen floated at the top, heavy and present. The accompanying rice was soft and chewy, but also felt buttery like rice from childhood. It along with the stew was almost like overload.
The pork shank was comparable to a pernil, tender pork. This dish however was similar to the textures of the pork belly from the mar y tierra appetizer—stringy and crunchy. This meat was served in a large hunk on the bone, which conserved the moisture of the interior. This method kept the fats that make pork so delicious, while allowing for a crispier, crunchier exterior. The pork was mildly seasoned, permitting the natural flavors and decadence of pork to shine, though it was not too salty and uncomfortably rich. It was a decent sized entrée, almost unexpectedly large. The shank was served atop rice and beans, which may have been under flavored but the fat from the pork amped it up a notch.
Dessert was a fried dough with guava, cheese, and caramel disaster. This was not sweet enough to perhaps warrant the title of dessert. The presentation was inventive; the four fried morsels were placed in a red paper bag while the dipping sauce was on the side. The fried bites were stuffed with little bits of cheese and drizzled with the utterly sweet guava. They were too floury, coarse and grainy on the tongue, definitely not the texture expected, and too heavy. The cheese was subtle and the caramel was lost. The only sweetness, was that of the guava, and even that was outweighed by the savory textures of the stuffed fried dough. Desserts with savory elements that go hand in hand with their sweet friends, can be exciting and unusual, but a balance must be mastered. This dessert lacked that balance. There was so much promise but little delivery.
Live music was too loud, which dampened the mood as no one could talk to his or her dining companions. There was a lot of silence and concentration on food, or hand motions and repetition of the diners. It even made chewing more difficult and a task. The music could definitely have been a nice addition, producing a more complete experience and voyage, but the diners were at a definite disadvantage because the music was so loud. Had it been softer, closer to a whisper, it would have added intrigue and atmosphere.
The service and atmosphere were really nice, except the too loud music, but the food was not well rounded. The appetizers were much more lively and complex than the mains, with different flavors and textures, almost on a different level of inventiveness. The restaurant maintains the cultural staples while trying to add something new and exciting. This is definitely present in the appetizers, whereas the mains are more immutable. The extensive happy hour, including tapas and drinks, might be the way to visit the Cuban; loading up on starters and forgetting the duller entrees, perhaps then the journey would be complete.