Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cuba Libre, Philadelphia PA

Cuba Libre is one of the first places I ever brunched in Philly. I’ve been here many times, and while the atmosphere, presentation, and service have remained consistently good, sadly the quality of the food has shifted from exotically bold to touristy bland.

Mango Butter with toast
But first the good news: the complimentary mango butter with toast is still as delicious as always. Even less than die-hard butter fans may have to fight the urge to eat it straight from their knives.

On a recent visit I order my once-favorite Torrejas ($12), a hazelnut and almond encrusted French toast stuffed with Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese and “druken” strawberry-honey drizzle. The honey flavor of the topping is quite strong and it is certainly more than a drizzle. Given the intensity, I’d suggest asking for it on the side.

What this dish really rides on, though, is the bread. When properly chosen, it delivers a perfect combination of crispy (complimenting the crunch of the perfectly toasted nuts) and soft (to soak up the Frangelico-Mascarpone filling). This time, the bread is way to thick and “bready.” While the filling is nice, the bread ratio is too high in comparison and the strong sugary flavor of the topping overwhelms any hint of Frangelico that may have existed. While the first few bites do taste delicious, by the end I am suffering from an overwhelming sugar-coma and have no desire to finish.

The savory dishes also suffer from a heavy-handed sugar shaker. My brunchmate orders the One-Eyed Ropa Vieja Hash ($13), a beautifully cooked brisket, served in a sweet tomato stew with vegetables throughout and topped with a fried egg. My brunchmate is thrilled with the freshness of the ingredients (the corn looks and tastes like it is right off the cob) and there is a generous proportion of well-cooked beef throughout, but the hash is overly sweet and lacks the variety of traditional Cuban spices, ultimately resulting in a one-note dish.

Wanting a hot chocolate, I order the Café con Xocolati, Cuban coffee fused with traditional Mexican chocolate and topped with whipped cream ($4), minus the coffee. I was excited when the server warned that the flavor would be richer, spicier and more bitter than a traditional hot chocolate, but the warning was not needed. While there was a hint of spice, it was extremely subtle and the drink was equal in texture and sweetness to most American-style hot chocolates. If you’ve never tried a real spiced hot chocolate, this would be a good introduction. But if you’re looking for the real thing, go to Golosa, Naked Chocolate, or Sazon instead.

A better beverage option is the tropical juices, sans ice. Pure summer delight, my favorite is the mango juice but they also offer passion fruit, guava, and orange ($3 each). Or for something a bit more exotic try the aqua frescas: mamey, guanabana, or lulo ($5 each or $20 for a pitcher). Not sure which one you’ll like? Go with the sampler ($8) so you can try each flavor.

Between the banana fans and the live plants one thing Cuba Libre gets right is the atmosphere. It could be the middle of the winter and you would still feel like you’ve entered a tropical paradise. If the chefs would lay off the sugar and allow for a few other flavors to shine this brunch could be something much more than simply adequate.

If you go:
  • Saturday and Sunday brunch
  • 10 S. 2nd St, Philadelphia PA 19106 (and locations in Atlantic City, Orlando & Washington D.C.)
  • Phone: (215) 627-0666
  • They accept credit cards—in a Cuban cigar box.
  • Cuba Libre

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