Went to La Habanera with a friend yesterday.
La Habanera is a new cuban restaurant opened near the square philips, in front of defunct Chez Alexandre. It replaces an asian restaurant I believe (I forgot its name).
I never went to cuba but I did enjoy some cuban restaurants in Miami (which has a large diaspora). My favorite restaurant and gold standard was a cuban “diner” called Puerto Sagua where we tried plantain, croquetas, the iconic cubano sandwich, the fantastic ropa vieja (still dream about this dish) and the tres leche cake. It wasn’t “fancy” but it was very authentic and very good value! (I’m not a value driven client but its nice to have!)
The habanera space is fantastic. It is pretty small but it is loudly retro riotous mix of soft pink and blue, with pictures of cuba, flamencos, plants, wood and neon. The wooden bar is amazing and almost feel like an alcove to alcohol consumption. If the restaurant thing doesn’t work this place could be turned into a bar without changing anything. The space is pretty loud and the din of conversation reverberating pretty strongly over the insistent background music, but my friend argued it fit the concept of a cuban cafe and, on hindsight, I tend to agree.
The Mohito seem to be a suggested drink (there is a large sign written “Genuine Cuban Mohito served here”) so I decided to try the “Habanera Mohito”, their house variant. I make very good mohito (I don’t remember where I took the recipe but my adapted version is here: http://captmtl.tumblr.com/post/115906744241/mohito-in-a-pint-or-collins-glass-add-12-mint) so I was curious to try what they had to offer. Their variation is served with blackberries over crushed ice. The first sip was agressive with alcohol but the drink balanced itself as the ice melted. Overall I wasn’t really impressed: the blackberry was overpowering and I didn’t have a sense of the mint (which is supposed to be the core of the drink). It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t transformative or a signature drink. It could have been easily a blackberry collins (see https://youtu.be/jdanI5uRpyo?t=2m50s). Also, the cocktail was served with mint that wasn’t bruised, which defeats the purpose of putting it there since it doesn’t release its essential oil (if you slap your mint and put it close to the straw, you will deliver to the drinker the aroma of mint with each sip… if you don’t slap it you won’t break the cellular walls and the aroma will not diffuse. see McMillan on mint here: https://youtu.be/gJV-O1e10z8?t=3m29s )
My friend tried the Pina Colada and thought it lacked a bit of creaminess. He preferred the variant found in Beachbum Berry’s books (see http://captmtl.tumblr.com/post/115906974241/pina-colada-in-a-blender-2-ounces-white-rum-1 , see https://www.amazon.ca/Beach-Bum-Berry-Remixed-Jeff/dp/1593621396 for my favorite tiki cocktail book). They also have a Hemingway daiquiri, which always makes be laugh because the original recipe was said to be near undrinkable ("… trusting Hemingway on cocktail quality is like trusting an NFL linebacker on how to make pasta…" see: http://scl.io/iJvTxyxe#gs.5iiK1Q0… apparently that’s why there are 1000 variants out there )
On to the food itself!
The portion are based on that new “hipster” tapas sized small plates. Basically you order a bunch of appetiser sized food items and they range from 5 to 15$. The portions are really small so you might want to order 2 to 3 plates.
The menu reads more like “cuban fusion” than cuban traditional. Fused with what? Hipster favorites apparently. Fried chicken Gua Bao (didn’t know Taiwanese cuisine made its way to cuba) mixes with Ropa Vieja tacos and Cuban pâté chinois . I ordered a plate of fried chicken Gua Bao and beef skewers. My friend had cuban pâté chinois and something else. Everything we had was very good. The skewers were delicious, the beef was very well marinated, the sauce was deep and satisfying and the grill marks added a welcome smoky flavour but the portion was very small (two small skewers were provided). The Bao was ok (I’ve had better but it could have been worse… I tend to prefer my Gua Bao a bit more humid?), the fried chicken was very good, the heat of the sauce provided very good contrast but I wasn’t a fan of the raw onion (a bit too aggressive for me?). Overall you could sense the one who came up with the menu had a good sense of flavour. The items felt a bit too expensive to us (2-3$ too expensive per item we ordered?), which is a common critic of many new “small plate” places.
Overall, my bill came up to 32$ after tip and taxes (11$ for the cocktail, 17$ for two skewers of beef and a bao).
We will probably not come back. The space is fantastic and the food is good but it felt a bit expensive for what it was (a cocktail and two appetisers). It has the potential to be a good cocktail place where you order small appetisers as amuse-bouches (they don’t have a full liquor license) as you whittle away your evening at the bar (which looks amazing) but the cocktails aren’t anything to write home about. As a restaurant, it feels a bit too expensive and, although it has cuban influences, it joins the (pretty crowded and growing) ranks of the small plates crowd instead of being one of the only traditional cuban restaurant in Montreal.