Food For Thought — July 31, 2014 at 11:00 am

Escape to Cuba, Without Leaving the Village

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As everyone, their mother and their pet dog go away for the summer, us suckers dedicated New Yorkers are left finding creative ways to escape the everyday slog.

Coney Island’s great, but kind of a schlep; the idea of tubing in the Catskills appeals, but makes Coney seem a short stroll away; Fire Island? So many transportation changes! What’s the lazy Manhattanite to do? Lucky for us, the West Village delivers – in the shape of Cuba, a festively authentic restaurant that feels, tastes and sounds like a mini vacation.

Celebrating 10 years this summer, Cuba, at Thompson Street between Bleecker and W. 3rd, deserves to be discovered (or rediscovered). The restaurant feels like nothing else around it. The minute you step in, you’re transported to an outtake from The Buena Vista Social Club: a live band serenades the surrounding tables, a guy in the corner rolls Cuban cigars, Caribbean colors dot the room and a relaxed hammock hangs from an exposed brick wall.

None of this distracts from the food, which is beautifully executed by Chef Mario Garcia, who knows his stuff, having trained under the head chef at the iconic Hotel Nacional in Cuba. He and founder Beatriz de Armas take pride in a menu that is both authentic (a Cuban friend confirmed this) and experimental, with new dishes added to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

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The cocktails, dreamed up by head bartender Eduardo Tavares, are everything you’d want from a Village Cuban restaurant: a range of mojitos pepper the menu alongside nods to Ernest Hemingway’s daiquiris and fashionable New York drinks served in martini glasses.

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I started my meal with a classic Mojito (Cuba also makes a delicious virgin one if you’re not drinking). This was the perfect accompaniment to the Salmon Tartar, which is served with a layer of guacamole, and the spinach/manchego empanadas. But when you’re eating Cuban food, it’s not a day to be a vegetarian, and, as such, the superstar app was the Chicharron Prensado, a braised pork belly with a balsamic glaze on a bed of congri – a combination of rice and beans with chorizo and green peas.

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Keeping to the carnivorous theme, we opted for Pato Con Salsa De Tamarindo and Rabo Encendido for main courses. The former is a Cuban spin on duck confit, but the latter is 100% authentic: braised oxtail in tomato red wine sauce and peppers, served with rice and black beans. It was the oxtail that is truly wow, and while it sounds adventurous, it has a universal comfort food appeal. To accompany this, we ordered the Choclo, or sautéed Peruvian corn, which had a satisfying crunch and nutty flavor that went well with the slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone beef.

It’s almost impossible to save room for dessert at Cuba, but save room you gotta –if for nothing else but the dreamy Flan de Leche. The guava and cream cheese empanadas are great too, but prioritize the first option if you can’t stomach more than a bite.

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Cuba – the restaurant – is a gem where loyal customers go to luxuriate in an evening: many spoke Spanish, more than a few bought freshly rolled cigars. If you crave delicious food and a Caribbean escape without the cruise, you got it. Just don’t tell the tourists – this is your vacation now.

Twisted Talk: Are you planning any NY staycations this summer? How about taking a trip to Cuba (the restaurant)? Discuss below! 

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