NOTE: Rather than write a second review, I am reposting my visit to Cuba Libre from 2012 to mark my Sunday evening visit. It was just as good as last year, though this around we ordered a number of small plates.
Sometime Thursday, I mentioned to my boss that there was a Cuban restaurant near our hotel in Washington. She gave me the “Hmm” of intrigue and didn’t say much more.
Today on our plane ride, she asked me if I thought the restaurant would be open today. We had a winner on a day when the weather was a loser. Sheets of rain poured down as we walked the block from our hotel on Ninth Street NW to Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar. Seating was immediate in the half-full restaurant, which I’m sure is par for the course on a rainy Sunday night when the local hockey team is playing down the street.
The decor replicates the streets of pre-Castro Havana. Classic Spanish architecture with faux balconies overlooking the dining area. The bar is cut in a way that it looks like a streetwise cantina. Our waitress trumpeted the 14 varieties of mojito, made with the house label rum, sugar syrup made from fresh pressed sugar cane and Cuban mint. The boss fell victim to the grilled pineapple variety; I went for the white sangria and it’s five different favors of rum. Neither disappointed. I’m certain that the 100 rums at the bar and the various rum flights would have also sufficed, but I had aspirations of walking back to the hotel after dinner.
The two column menu listed small plates and entrees, categorized by the primary ingredient. Both of us started with the Sopa Levanta Muerto, or raising the dead soup, based on the recommendation of our waitress. The generous blend of crabmeat, bay scallops, shrimp and mussels are simmered in coconut milk and the broth gains an orange tinge from the fish. The shrimp was cooked perfectly, snapping to the tooth and without any signs of overcooking. The broth offered a silky base with the slight spice you might expect from Latin cuisine.
Cuba Libre’s tostones are twice-battered and fried plantains, served with a creamy garlic mojo sauce, that looked more like crabcakes patties. The mojo added a slight enhancement, but the plantains stood alone with a pleasant, intense flavor.
The list of 20 or so entrees range from the traditional Cuban sandwich to a paellla to a four-person gaucho grill of steaks, shrimp, chicken and chorizo. My boss, upon the waitress’s recommendation chose the pollo del solar. The lime-marinated chicken breast was stacked on black bean croquettes and a bed of sautéed kale. She didn’t talk much during dinner, the ultimate sign of deference to the kitchen. I teetered between ordering ropa vieja — braised brisket with tomatoes, peppers and wine over rice — and my final choice. Pork is so well done in Latin American cuisine that the lechon asado could not be ignored. The inch thick pack of shredded pork strands stood atop mashed yuca root and was topped with vigoron slaw (A traditional Nicaraguan cabbage salad). Beneath was black bean soup. Everything was perfectly spiced. Perfect is an overdone word, but it was rampant in this dish. The Amarillo chile was just hot enough in the mash; the mojo complemented the pork just enough. The main ingredients did the heavy lifting while the accoutrements let you know they were there.
Entrees are accompanied by pressed bread with a homemade mango butter, for which my boss has since put me on the trail to find a recipe. Maintaining the Cuban culture, guest bills are delivered in an open cigar box which you close when you are ready for pickup.
Cuba Libre is located at 801 9th St. NW, at the corner of 9th and H Streets in Washington, D.C., and is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.