Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cuba Libre

The scene: Old Havana. Cobblestone streets, music floating from restaurants and clubs. Scantily clad women, overdressed men, traveling in crowds. Where can you find such merry-making? Atlantic City. The Tropicana Casino and Resort, to be exact.

To be clear, I'm a fan of Disneyworld. I'm a fan of the created environment, kept perfect in its image and wanting only to entertain. It works for me. And so Cuba Libre, located in the Tropicana's "Quarter," and made to simulate Old Havana, worked for me.

Cuba Libre started as a restaurant in Philadelphia in 2000, offering mostly just that image -- a great party atmosphere in its recreation of a faux cuban courtyard, complete with interior balcony. Which is how I viewed it for many years, a fun party place, until I heard that Guillermo Pernot, formerly of now-closed but once excellent !Pasion! had taken over. Closer research for this post revealed Pernot is actually the "concept chef," for both the Philadelphia and Atlantic City restaurants, a gig I wouldn't mind accepting one day.
In any case, entering the Atlantic City Cuba Libre and being seated was pretty pleasing. Bustling with casino partygoers and loud - live - music, we were led to a candle-lit table near the bar. Our waiter could not have been nicer, striking the perfect note of friendly and attentive.

I should mention what we first ordered first -- drinks. I credit Cuba Libre for helping bring the mojito craze to Philadelphia. Craze might be the operative word here; the mojito menu has grown exponentially in size since I last perused it. From pomegranate to mango, you name the mojito, you can order it. Even better, after I explained that I prefer my mojitos on the sweeter side, the waiter kindly explained that he could add extra guarapa, or sugar cane juice, to my drink. Which worked! Perhaps even more delicious, however, was TPB's order of Cuba Libre's namesake, with the house specialty-made spiced rum and coke.

From there we moved on to the Fire and Ice ceviche, which we were told was one of the few menu items with some spicy heat to it. I didn't taste the heat, but the ceviche was excellent. And again, the dry ice brought more than a few appreciative stares from fellow diners, adding to the fun.

The entrees, however, were spotty. I ordered the Atun Senor Lopez (or "the tuna," as I requested of our waiter), described as seared bigeye tuna, Cuba Libre brand 5 year rum and coconut glaze, malanga puree, dried shrimp and cucumber and tomato salsa. A glossary within the menu hepfully explained that malanga is a "starchy root vegetable with a nutty, earthy flavor." I would describe it as something close to yucca, or a less flavorful potato. And I don't know about you, but "seared tuna" to me means just that - only the outside is cooked. However, this tuna is wrapped around a sugar cane and was pretty well done save for a medium rare section around the sugar cane, in the very center. All of which made the tuna a bit bland. TPB ordered the Plato Cuba Libre, which features tastings of three entrees and three sides. The marinated skirt steak, included in his plate, was worth ordering as a stand-alone. Deliciously seasoned and cooked, it was perfect. Several of his sides missed the mark and needed more flavor.

Our bread pudding dessert, "Pudin de Pan," described as warm Cuban bread pudding, mango compote, hazelnut- praline crunch and dulce de leche gelato, was more to TPB's liking than mine. Let me admit that I am not a fan of fruit mixed with dessert unless that's the point of the dessert, like apple pie. Much like fruit in ice cream, mango with bread pudding detracted from the dish, including the the hazelnut and dulce de leche gelato elements. TPB, however, believed that the mango was a definite plus. The bread pudding itself was executed well, achieving that perfect custard taste that alleviates the heaviness of the dessert.

By this time, the live music started about twenty feet away. A group of marines in full dress uniform hit the floor with their dates. The older man and much younger woman seated near us, who had sparked much speculation from TPB and I about their relationship, rose to dance as well. The illusion of what I, in my more modest travels, might picture of Havana was complete. If you can appreciate the Epcot Center version of life, or even just a fun evening with live music, stick with drinks and appetizers and enjoy.

Cuba Libre is located at The Quarter, Tropicana Casino and Resort, 2801 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City, NJ. (609) 348-6700,

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