For all their bombast and bullying, restaurant makeover shows have a pretty simple message at heart: You only have one shot to convince a customer to return to your restaurant, so every detail matters. Hosts like Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine might gleefully inform an owner that his meatloaf tastes like a dog's dinner, but they will just as readily take him to task for front-of-house disasters like lackluster service and wrongheaded décor.
Irvine's show Restaurant: Impossible was playing on the TV over the bar during one of my visits to the Mission's new Cuban restaurant, Caña. As the mistakes started to add up, I couldn't help but think that the owners and staff could learn a trick or two from watching it.
On the positive side, it's a nice room, the former Circolo space at the corner of Mariposa and Florida, all soaring ceilings, abstract Latin art, and a long open kitchen. But some-thing about the feng shui feels off – the tables are clustered in only part of the room (leaving a large empty space for dancing on live music nights) and sit too close together, so getting to and from your table takes concentration usually reserved for navigating the Ferry Building on a Saturday morning. On one visit I snagged my shirt on a rogue sugarcane stalk and nearly tripped over a waiter crouching to take an order; on another I was seated too close to a potted plant and kept brushing up against it, causing its wrought iron pedestal to wobble precariously.
Then there was the brunch visit when, 10 minutes after we ordered coffee, we were in-formed that the kitchen had run out of coffee beans (I thought longingly of the Blue Bottle around the corner before settling on black tea). Service in general was inexcusably slow: At nearly every juncture, we wondered where our drinks/food/server/check had disappeared to. And then there's the cash-only policy, a little presumptuous for a meal that can easily climb to $50 per person with drinks and appetizers. A cash machine is ready and waiting in back, but if food trucks and farmers markets can manage credit cards, a white tablecloth fine-dining restaurant should be able to.
Taken by themselves, these are minor quibbles; as a whole, they represent more than just a little annoyance. The disorganization is especially mystifying because Caña is an offshoot of Oakland's popular restaurant of the same name; you'd hope that a successful restauranteur should have ironed out these kinks by now. The problem with these kinds of missteps in basic service and dining comfort, of course, is that I've gotten this far and haven't even mentioned the food. Which is a shame, because the menu did have some rousing successes.
Any Cuban restaurant lives and dies by its sandwiches, and the ones at Caña more than met expectations. Calle ocho, a steak sandwich, was fragrant with garlic and chimichurri. The meat was tender, the onions caramelized just right, the manchego cheese just barely melted, the house-made bun light and airy.
The Cubano was also glorious, piled with moist pulled pork and black forest ham, with a sweet tang from pickles and some heat from yellow mustard and garlic mojo sauce. It's a working-class sandwich at heart, not far from the ham-and-cheese sammies my mother used to pack in my school lunch, and I appreciated the kitchen's instinct to avoid fancying it up. (You can order it with a "hen's egg" on top for an extra $1, but it doesn't need it.)
Empanadas deliver as well. They're a popular item in Oakland and don't deviate from that mold: The pastry is flaky and not leaden, the beef mince has a pleasant fruitiness thanks to raisins, the vegetarian version has a mushroom mix that satisfies just as much as the meat. Another favorite was the yucca fries, which came stacked like Jenga blocks but were light as a cloud, though we couldn't detect the menu's promised tamarind in the ketchup.
And of course there is an extensive rum selection, as well as a cocktail list with a per-fectly passable mojito and a memorable gin drink with muddled cilantro. It was fresh and verdant, so good you could overlook its unfortunate name: "...But Hemingway Ain't Cuban..."
Inconsistency crept back at dinner. Our green salad starter was so aggressively garlicky no one ate more than a few bites, but another app, the lightly fried salt cod fritters, handled its flavors better with a lovely cilantro cream dip. The best of the entrees was the meaty, unctuous braised oxtail in sherry sauce, though the grilled plantains on the plate were cold when they arrived. Same with the rice under the ropa vieja (Spanish for "old clothes") in a zesty sofrito-laced sauce.
The atmosphere at night might have played into it, because the room felt echoingly empty even though most of the tables were full. Things seemed more promising at brunch, when sunlight streamed through the large, gauzy-curtained windows and a live band played standards like "Girl from Ipanema." There were bottomless mimosas and sweet potato waffles with Cuban fried chicken and mango slaw (the mangoes were under-ripe and the sweet potato waffles were overdone, but the chicken was perfect) and fufu hash, a zesty mixture of mashed plantains, smoked bacon, and chimichurri (though the eggs were as hard as rubber, the rest of the dish was tasty).
Caña is close, but sloppiness is keeping it from becoming the sleek destination restaurant it's trying to be. As a diner, I don't want to worry about tripping a waiter or knocking over shrubbery when I'm led to my table. I don't want half of my $20 entree to be cold, and I don't want to be denied coffee on a Sunday morning. I do hope they get it together though, because I'd go back for one of those sandwiches. I'm sure Ramsay and Irvine would agree that's an excellent start.