Words By Marcus Dowling, Photos By Tam Sackman
Open for just over four years in the Nation’s Capital, nowGallery Place-area cornerstone Cuba Libre brings on a new executive chef in Matthew Zagorski, as well as a array of menu items both new and old for the fall/winter season. In sampling dining options for the fall at the DC location of the Cuban-themed east coast chain eatery, the choices were tastefully delivered, and in lacking an over-eager desire to excite the imagination actually proved to create meal options that oftentimes met (but didn’t exceed) expectations.
Direct in conversational tone, the tattooed and confident Zagorski presented each dish as if they were not new to his culinary skill-set, but more so items with which he has developed an intimate awareness of their existing flavors and unique qualities. On a menu for a restaurant in a chain, the executive chef took the moments afforded to him and delivered dishes that seamlessly fit into the menu in its entirety.
For instance, Cuba Libre’s menu has always featured the traditional Levanta Muerto seafood soup (complete with crabmeat, shrimp and mussels, and delicious base comprised of coconut milk, red peppers, green peppers and corn as the standout flavors, seasoned with a slight note of heat from chili powder). Alongside that soup, another was delivered too, a black bean soup with a sour cream emulsion. The simplicity of taking an everyday Cuban dish and giving it a note of intrigue that didn’t overpower the expectation of the traditional dish was impressive. Sometimes it’s difficult to color within the lines with imagination. In this dish, the chef excelled in that concept.
The standout dishes on the menu were those featuring seafood. Zagorski’s background in fine dining from a previous stint at Philadelphia’s now shuttered Striped Bass were showcased here. Mahi mahi served on a bed of “forbidden” black rice, and topped with a combination of mojito salsa verde and chipotle aioli was wonderful, the earthy flavors that make black rice such a unique delicacy counterbalanced the sweet and spicy flavors of the salsa and aioli. As well, the “suntanned salmon” is an excellent dish too, the star anise tomato sauce a true winner. The hint of licorice in the anise’s flavor combined with the tomato’s natural acidity to create the meal’s most unique dish, one that again showcases an imaginative flavor and presentation that fits well within Cuba Libre’s dining expectation.
The courses that featured breaded or fried presentations of menu cuisine underwhelmed. Spinach and manchego banuelos and malanga fritters felt underwhelming as compared to items in which flavors and textures were smoother and less ostentatious. Chicharones showed promise, too, but again, felt disjointed when compared to the rest of the restaurant’s offerings. If there’s anything that’s a take-home from Cuba Libre’s menu is that it’s best when regarded as being simple, yet executed with elegance.
Meat dishes were not so much inspired as they were professional in delivery, erring more on the side of meeting expectations for flavor than showcasing any excessive whimsy. Adobo marinated sirloin steak is a showcase dish as the medium well sirloin sits on roasted garlic mashed potatoes at the end of an intriguing horizontal plating, as the Cuba Libre steak sauce and jalapeno chimichurri are drizzle to deliver the delightful course with an entertaining and artistic presentation. Lechon asado was Chef Zagorski’s favorite dish, and the slow-roasted pulled pork is aided by being presented alongside a chili-flavored smashed yucca. For what the dish may lack in presentation, it more than delivers in the most savory flavors of the evening.
With 90 rums in their collection, the huge draw of Cuba Libre is as much the selection of alcohol as it is the cuisine. Of the five cocktails offered on Wednesday evening, the standouts were the Bloody Mary-styled “Havana Hottie” and the holiday-themed “Cocoa Cubano.” The Havana Hottie downplays tomato juice for strawberry puree, which, especially when combined with the flavors of pureed ginger and habanero pepper, creates a cocktail that is sweet on the tongue, yet reaches the throat with an unexpected kick of heat. The holiday-themed Cocoa Cubano could be eggnog, but instead tastes like a swet, thin and flavorful milkshake. Cruzan Banana Rum, Rum Chata and white creme de cacao may sound boozy, but this drink showcases a master stroke of cocktail design.