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My friends Adam, Janice, and Chester were excited when they heard that a restaurant called Habana was opening in San Francisco. Determined foodies who even considered working in the field (marketing Adam's ribs) during a lull in employment, they had been eager to share all their favorite Bay Area restaurants and purveyors, introducing me to luscious lobster rolls in Larkspur, crackling catfish po' boys in Oakland, splendid sushi in the city. "But we haven't found any Cuban restaurants at all," they told me, with a mixture of bewilderment and indignation.
Caesar Habana-style $6.95
Tierra-mar platter $8.95
Tuna patacon $19.50
Ropa nueva $18.50
Coconut flan $5.50
Warm banana tart $6.50
Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight
Parking: $5 lot across the street
Muni: 12, 42, 47, 49, 76
Noise level: low
I felt their pain. Several Cuban places had been high on the list of our favorite restaurants when we all lived in Los Angeles: the fabled, dirt-cheap Versailles, home of locally notorious garlic chicken; Rincon Criollo, even cheaper, and with its own partisans who loved its pork and chicken even more than Versailles'; the beloved Portos Bakery in Glendale, hangout for the Cuban expatriate community and purveyor of fabulous medianoches, grilled sandwiches stuffed with pork, ham, cheese, and pickles, not to mention Portos' divine guava and coconut pastries, at ridiculously low prices. When I lived in New York I had favorite Cuban restaurants, too, including the Cuban-Chinese Mi Chinita in Chelsea, with its vintage stainless-steel deco diner façade; I once wrote an entire column that was an ode to a medianoche served in a now-vanished hole in the wall on Broadway next to the old Village Voice offices off Union Square. And I dragged my hostess in Miami off her beaten track to explore Cuban eateries, including yet another Versailles (no relation to the L.A. place).
But I had my doubts that we would find what we were looking for at this new "bar- restaurante" in S.F., despite the "Sabor de Cuba" that topped the menu they'd sent me. It wasn't just that the menu descriptions and ingredients (including hazelnut vinaigrette, chipotle rémoulade, smoked tomato coulis) looked much more ambitious and upscale than the homey, modest fare we were longing for. It was that restaurateur Sam DuVall had tried a number of other ideas at this location, which he'd operated off and on stretching back over two decades, including Café Royale, Kiki's, Rocco's Seafood Grill, F.I.G.S., and On the Avenue. With the last two it seemed that his attention span had dramatically shortened: Even before I'd been able to visit F.I.G.S. (whose initials stood for France, Italy, Greece, and Spain, inspiration for the small plates that dominated the menu), he'd changed the name to On the Avenue, and then closed the place down in January, in order to reopen as Habana in March. (This didn't seem feckless, exactly, but it demonstrated a certain lack of commitment.)
Still, it seemed an entirely appropriate place for dinner after Janice, Chester, and I attended a panel discussion about baseball and literature at the San Francisco Library's main branch, moderated by our pal David Kipen, the Chronicle's erudite and witty book critic. Didn't some historians feel that Cuba's history would have been entirely different if Fidel Castro had fulfilled his ambition to play shortstop for the New York Yankees? (Or was it the Brooklyn Dodgers?) I forgot to ask the distinguished panel of local authors and professors, I was so enthralled with their obvious enthusiasm for the boys of summer, preferring to hear about their vivid memories of the first game they'd each attended. It seemed that in every instance they'd witnessed a no-hitter or a shutout or a similarly infrequent, magical event, which had not only initiated their obsession but forever colored their love for the sport.
Afterward we were joined at the restaurant, conveniently located just a few minutes' drive up Van Ness, by Adam, who'd been shopping for a back-to-school wardrobe for his new job, inconveniently located (for me) some 3,000 miles away in Dulles, Va. So I was also saying a bittersweet farewell (oh, OK, au revoir) to the family I'd been referring to, only semi-ironically, as "my social life" since I'd moved up here.
I recognized the handsome black-and-white tiled floor and the big, rectangular wooden bar from previous incarnations of the space, but the bright purple and ocher walls and large open dining room I'd glimpsed were gone, replaced by a complicated décor featuring wrought iron, a magical-realist mural of exotic people and exotic animals, much vegetation (including banana palms), and a truly wonderful collection of hanging light fixtures that included amazing chandeliers. "It's what Meyer Lansky would have done if he had the money," I said.
It seemed silly to resist the lure of the enthusiastically described "hand crafted original Cuban cocktails," even at $7 each, so we tried a Mojito, a Hemingway daiquiri, and an Old Habana cocktail ("Just think of the best Manhattan you have ever had," per the somewhat overwrought menu). I found them all on the weak side, especially my drowned-in-soda Mojito, but only Adam was brave enough to send back his drink and request a boost of alcohol.
I knew that Cubans would never recognize the extravagant combinations offered on the menu (crème fraîche on the plantain-crusted tuna? marinated skirt steak served with a beef ragout, masquerading as ropa nueva, an allusion to ropa vieja, aka shredded old clothes?), but then I had taken a Cuban writer to Versailles in Los Angeles, and he had told me that the main difference between Cuban food in the United States and Cuban food in Cuba is that it is better and cheaper here, even if one is lucky enough to eat there in paladares, semilegal restaurants found in private homes.
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