Havana Nights at Cubana Social

Crispy avocado.

By Mary Yeung

What is it about Havana that seeps so deeply into our collective souls? Is it the sensuous music? The earthy food? 450 years of romantic architecture? A forbidden paradise lost? Or is it the Cuban exiles who keep memories alive with luscious coffee table books, evocative memoirs and atmospheric restaurants.

Earlier this month, Cubana Social introduced its new chef to diners by throwing a cocktail and tasting party. Guests got to sample Chef Andrew D’Ambrosi’s Cuban inspired menu of crispy avocado with habanero marmalade, braised kale, Sea Bass ceviche, octopus a la plancha, slow roasted pork and house smoked wild Coho salmon. For dessert, there was a rich winter-spiced flan and a light key lime pie.

According to owners Chris Bouza and Paul Tamburro, the menu is a modern take on  Cuban cuisine, employing new cooking techniques and interesting mixes of spices to update traditional dishes. Its old Cuba meets new Brooklyn.

The creamy avocado’s crispy shell is deep fried in panko crumbs and the slow-roasted pork is pressed into cubes and seared to lend a more complex texture. My favorite is the braised Lacinato kale, very tender and sweet accompanied by caramelized onions, shitake mushrooms and a mild garlic-lime aioli. The Coho salmon was buttery and intense, served with fruity guava marmalade, charred scallion cream cheese and pressed on Cuban bread. So few restaurants serve wild salmon these days that I almost forgot how flavorful it can be.

Cubana Social’s signature dish is a braised short rib empanada that is a real crowd pleaser, especially for lunch, where you can get three big ones on a plate.

Vegetarian dishes are just as good as the meat dishes, with crispy avocado, savory braised kale and beet and black bean fritters, served with avocado mustard. Vegans are not going to feel neglected.

Pair your favorites with cocktails like the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Dorothy Parker Gin, Black Currant Liqueur, Salers Gentiane Apertif, Spanish Cava and Absinthe Rinse) or the Cosecha Sour (Winter Spiced Denizen Rum, Vanilla Bean Syrup, Egg White and Lemon Juice). These are delicate and refreshing and will remind you of those breezy nights in the tropics.

Most Cuban restaurants I visited on the East Coast usually celebrate the island’s sun-washed Caribbean colors of earthy yellow and muted turquoise, but Cubana Social has a more subdued interior; it’s beige with touches of black and brown, accented with walls of aging, creamy-colored ceramic tiles. It’s like stepping into a sepia tone photograph of 1940’s Cuba.  It has the illusion of faded grandeur, yet it’s casual and friendly, even at night when candle lights are flickering and pretty young people are swilling cocktails and talking of art, music and politics.

Cubana Social, 70 N.6th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn