Oh, Alma. You've been such a standby for me. With your soothing candles and white sofas, black and white projected photographs, you meet my Friday happy hour needs. Which are, to be clear, a place that you can hear and participate in conversation, lean forward or back against something comfortable, order delicious food -- or not -- with no pressure. And a place that offers a pleasing array of cocktails, naturally.
I went with a friend who names Alma as her favorite restaurant. Her rules for going are clear: go anytime of night, but sit in the bar area, toward the back, exclusively. Which rules out the main dining area. And perhaps she's right, for the people watching alone. On this visit, we were instructed on the system: red candles signal that the table/area is available for patrons who are not eating dinner; white candles signal tables in which the patrons must eat dinner. Since we were in the bar area, these two types of tables are close together and, let's face it, who really inherently knows what each color candle means. As a result, many a hostess had to correct an errant diner. Probably not the smoothest system. But now you know.
In any case, I enjoy the "suave" mojito, which, I am assured, is the sweeter version of the mojito. Caipirinhas are featured prominently as well. However, as wordly as I enjoy pretending to be, I am unable to pronounce this drink's name and therefore sometimes avoid ordering it. The times I've mustered up the courage, I've been suitably impressed, but the suave mojito usually quenches my thirst here. Alma offers a "caipiroska" as well, which is a caipirinha with vodka. Alma keeps the drink menu relatively short and sweet, offering a good but small variety of signature drinks.
Which sets the stage for the next best thing there: the tiny rolls. Clearly coated with crack, I mean, a blend of spices, they melt in your mouth with the perfect density of molten dough combined with a sturdier texture. The oil and herb dipping sauce, with its tangy sweetness, compliments the spice. They may even contain carbohydrates, I'm not quite as certain after my mojito.
The menu changes at least seasonally. The current menu appears to be almost entirely brand new, except for certain favorites like ceviche. I recommend the ceviche sampler on spectacle alone, grandly served in a large bowl with lots of ice. I had the hamachi tonight, but I found the overpowering red pepper flakes to be too spicy for the fish, or at least for me. I ordered the beef tenderloin as an entree, topped with a creamy lump crabmeat sauce and accompanied by asparagus and a horseradish chimi churra. The wonderfully prepared meat went well with the delicately spiced crab meat sauce. The crab meat, sadly like many restaurants, did not taste fresh, but was still very good. Not a fan of horseradish, I had it on the side and found it nevertheless to be mild but spiced well. I resisted getting my usual side dish of fried plantains, which never fail to please.
Like many Stephen Starr restaurants, Alma is as much about mood, spectacle, and hipness as food. I am not, however, complaining.
Alma de Cuba is located at 1623 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, (215) 988-1799.