Habana Good Time

Is it the real Cuban soup or merely the Nuevo Latino? Who cares, if it's good!

Once we were dining, I remembered Calvin Trillin, who said that once, when he was analyzing a homemade gazpacho he was eating to see how it differed from an authentic sevillan, he realized that the main difference was that it tasted better. The proof of the pudding is indeed in the eating, and who cares that Habana presents its menu as Cuban when I think it's Nuevo Latino, that chef Joseph Kohn is more influenced by the cooking of New York's Douglas Rodriguez than that of Cuba? The bay scallops in the vieras ceviche had been rendered pillowy-soft by their bath of pineapple, lime juice, and coconut-serrano chili broth. The Habana cocktail was filled with firm, plump tiger shrimp, happily nestled among chunks of ripe, sweet mango and buttery avocado, enhanced by a fresh tomato relish. Janice was especially happy with her Habana-style Caesar, which translated to a slightly smoky chipotle dressing and manchego cheese instead of the expected Parmesan. Knowing that one of my criteria is whether I would ever order a dish again, she informed me that she would gladly return to Habana just to eat this salad. We all plucked fried calamari and scallops from Chester's generous tierra-mar platter (the tierra part of the equation was represented by expertly fried green beans and onion rings, which we dipped in very good creamy chipotle rémoulade). I heard my father's voice saying, "Don't fill up on bread," as we dipped our bread, more French than Cuban, in the bowls of garlicky chimichurri, the olive oil-based sauce full of fresh chopped parsley. Perhaps my favorite dish was the subtly spicy-sweet picadillo I had ordered, a blend of chopped chicken, almonds, raisins, tomatoes, and chayote squash that we scooped up with house-made yucca chips: I thought it would serve as an excellent light supper on its own.

The main dishes confirmed my happy impressions: Not everything was as satisfying as the first courses, but then I had initially approached those with suspicion, and my expectations had been raised. The most successful dishes included Janice's tuna patacon, the thick chunk of plantain-crusted ahi tuna (wittily echoing the fashionable, labor-intensive nouvelle cuisine invention of potato-crusted fish) still rare at its center, with black bean sauce, a very tasty mash of maduro plantains with bacon and onions, and crème fraîche. ("I'm having a very good meal," she beamed.) I was also beguiled by my ropa nueva, the shredding reserved for the braised beef ragout served alongside the marinated skirt steak and puréed boniato (a white-fleshed Cuban sweet potato). And though I missed the succulent, long-cooked pork familiar from a thousand meals at Versailles, I appreciated Chester's medallones de cerdo, sautéed pork medallions with a light tomato coulis, served with fufu, another take on plantains, this time mashed with yams. We were less taken with the big guava-glazed barbecue ribs and an enchilado de camarones of stewed tiger prawns. The bowls of white rice and extraordinarily good soupy black beans (jazzed up with diced bright peppers as small as confetti) were classically Cuban, but I did long for the traditional plates of fried plantains that are an invariable accompaniment in my usual Cuban haunts.

We ordered one each of all the desserts (coconut flan, warm banana tart, baked pineapple crisp) and were extremely pleased. Habana had knocked one out of the park, as far as we were concerned.

Cuba Libre: Habana's complicated décor includes a 
magical-realist mural and much vegetation.
Anthony Pidgeon
Cuba Libre: Habana's complicated décor includes a magical-realist mural and much vegetation.

Details

Scallop ceviche $7.95

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

441-2822

Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: $5 lot across the street

Muni: 12, 42, 47, 49, 76

Noise level: low

2080 Van Ness (at Pacific)

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I returned for a solitary supper. I was cosseted by the thoughtful hostess, who led me to a window table when she thought that the light at the slightly cramped, triangular deuce overlooking the bar at which she'd originally seated me was inadequate to the book that was my companion. The equally thoughtful waiter asked if I was going to the opera, probably because of the early hour and the alacrity with which I ordered my dinner: I was actually headed to The Constant Wife at ACT, though I hadn't planned to mention it; I had plenty of time to enjoy my meal. And enjoy it I did -- a lovely ceviche cocktail of shrimp, mango, and jicama bathed in mint, and a pan-roasted chicken breast with an "angry orange" sauce, not so much angry, I thought, as silky, with plump little croqueticas of melty Gouda cheese and a couple of mellow roasted garlic cloves. I hoped Mr. DuVall would keep Habana around for a while.

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