One Saturday last year, when I had just settled into life in D.C., a few friends scooped me up in a rented minivan at 7 a.m. and whisked me to Atlantic City for a night. It was four girls and one very lucky guy, and we took that town by storm. We gambled, we shopped, we drank, we dined, we partied. And we did it all to cat-calls and hollering.
For dinner, we stopped at Cuba Libre in the Tropicana Resort. After mojitos and a little salsa, we took calendar-girl photos by the vintage car at the entrance and then waddled off to the casinos and then to the clubs. Life was grand.
So when Cuba Libre opened in D.C., I assumed that same sort of Havana Disneyland was moving into Chinatown. At least they started out with a bang: For the first week, dinners were 50% off; for the second and third, a 25% discount. Not bad. Plus, the place was touting itself as being huge for Penn Quarter – large enough to host big Schmoozarama gatherings. It was packed.
But to keep up with D.C., you have to serve brunch, of course. And so they began … Nov. 13 to be exact. And, in true fashion, the Bitches were there, with a large hungover crowd ready to drink that rum bar dry.
While we’re on the subject, let me gush about the drinks for a minute. They’re not lying when they tout their rum bar. I’ve spent three years in South Florida, so I know a classic mojito when I taste one. Their cocktail list is big and adventurous, and it doesn’t let down.
The brunch take? A champagne mojito with hierba buena, guarapo, fresh lime juice and a splash of soda. It packs a good kick – I had two or three and was mighty tipsy for a Sunday afternoon. Their bloody Marys (ahem, Havana Hotties), were great, and the mimosa Rojo (champagne, cranberry juice and a splash of guarapo) was good for a lighter drink.
The other beverage worth mentioning: The Cuban coffee was divine. It came with steamed coconut milk and a shot of spiced rum.
The brunch menu, however, was a bit of a let down.
The huevos enchiladas were good, but they forgot to bring out the corn arepas until we were almost done with the meal. Missing that piece sort of blew the dish. The Cuba Libre Plato Misto looked like it came straight from Denny’s, a simple plate with eggs, pancakes, and bacon. Sure, it also came with rum-molasses syrup and mango butter, and a potato-cheesey casserole thingy to boot, but that didn’t stop the Grand Slam taste in my mouth.
The pollo frito con panqueques, which the waiter said was created just for D.C.’s brunch crowd, looked like fried chicken strips crawling over a mound of pancakes. Not the best fried chicken presentation I’ve seen for brunch. Plus, it was a bit too salty for our taste.
The Ropa Vieja Hash was made with shredded beef brisket stewed with tomatoes, bell peppers and red wine on a hash of potatoes, maduros and corn. It was a beautiful presentation, but tasted too sweet. The tortilla de Chorizo con Papa, an egg omelet filled with chorizo sausage, roasted potatoes, sour cream and cheese, looked so boring I had no inclination to touch it.
I hate to be so negative, so I’m going to circle back. The appetizers were not as bad as the entrees. The guacamole was unique, made with pineapple, and so was lighter and fruiter than the average guac. The ceviche sampler – a tiny taste of each of their five award-winning ceviches – was small, but each little dish was packed with a unique seafood flavor. Great starter for a big table.
The service was “well-intentioned but unpolished” as one of my Bitches so aptly stated at the table. My bone to pick: They made our party wait until everyone had arrived to seat us, which is a fine policy in a busy restaurant at dinner time. But at brunch? When people are arriving hungover all at different times? And in a huge restaurant that had TWO tables full? Not acceptable. Plus, the fact that there’s no valet during brunch doesn’t help their cause. I circled Chinatown for 45 minutes to find parking.
The entrees all came out at different times, which usually isn’t a problem, but there was A LOT of time between plates arriving at our table and some Bitches were going hungry. The restaurant clearly recognized this, so they dropped a comped Torrejas on the table for dessert.
And trust me on this one, this puppy is only good for dessert: it’s rich and heavy halzelnut encrusted French toast stuffed with gooey, sweet Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese and topped with a “drunken” strawberry drizzle. We dug in, polished our mojitos off, and staggered out of our Havana brunch and into Chinatown.
The Bitches say: C. Go back for drinks and apps in the evening. Cuba Libre should stick with what they know, not try to play in the same league as the D.C. brunch pros.
801 9th St. NW, Ste A (Corner of 9th & H Streets)
Washington, DC 20001