If you can’t be in an exotic place, the best city for allowing you to pretend, in my eyes, is London. So when I fancied hopping over to the Caribbean for an evening, I visited the new Cubana, which has recently opened by Smithfield Market.
You may know the original Cubana restaurant – which also doubles as a lively Mojito and salsa hotspot – in Waterloo. The last time I visited was on my birthday a couple of years ago. We’d built up quite an appetite laughing our socks off at an evening production of La Soiree. I think we turned up a little too late – because the tables were literally being folded up around us to make way for the eager dancers who were soon sashaying around us. But If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, that’s what I say. And before I knew it, I was dancing off my rice and peas to some infectious Latin beats.
The Smithfield Market outpost to this lively joint – from what I could see – has more of a foodie focus than pleasing the weekend mojito crowd. My friend Karen and I visited on a Thursday and it was more colourful and more brightly lit than I remember its sister restaurant being. There was no cocktail bar in sight, but rather a large open kitchen with a counter. And to the right of us, as we went through the front doors, there was a huge coffee roaster which joins a new coffee bar and café that opens during the day. Apparently, they’re serving up everything from waffles and French toast to smoothies and pancakes – perfect fodder for a mojito-fuelled hangover, I imagine.
But despite its more café-style vibe, we arrived to a three-piece band (including a vocalist) belting out live reggae and Latin beats. After ordering a glass of white wine and a Virgin Mojito cocktail (which was very good and not too sweet), we tucked into some colourful starter plates from the tapas menu.
The Camarones con Gabardina y salsa de mango y chilli (prawns in a light tempura batter, served with fresh mango chilli salsa) were light and flavoursome with a nice addition of chargrilled onions on the skewer. We both loved the pincho de pollo, chorizo y guayaba which is basically pieces of chicken, chorizo guava and peppers on skewers which have been marinated in guava, ginger, honey, lime juices and spices.
Apparently the chorizo comes from a farm in the Sierra de Gredors mountains in Spain. Plus, Cubana is making quite a bit of noise about being one of the few restaurants to use 100% organic meat, which gets a thumbs up. The chorizo wasn’t fatty like some can be and was deliciously soft and full of flavour. So far, so very good.
The mains, it turned out, landed on opposite ends of the spectrum for us; I was very content with my fresh ‘Cod Veracruz’ which was nicely soft with a crisp skin. It was served with plantain – which could have been softer but was deliciously sweet – rice and peas. Meanwhile, my friend found her Creole-style prawns far too tough to eat. It was disappointing and was only made better by the flavours of the sofrito (a tomato sauce) and chilli plantain rice. But that wasn’t quite enough to fill a hungry stomach.
We skipped dessert, but were offered a (rather generous) taste of some traditional Cuban cakes, which we nibbled at (I recommend the Cuban brioche if you are swinging by for breakfast).
While I can’t speak for the rest of the menu, this is a restaurant that needs a tweak here and there with the menu but has good potential for its fuss-free, street food style offerings.
While it’s not the best Caribbean food I’ve eaten in the capital, they certainly deliver on the Caribbean ambience. From the brightly coloured mural of a vintage Havana-style car on the walls, to the infectiously happy beats and very good Mojitos, it provided a flavour of the Caribbean on an otherwise sunshine-less day. If you’re not in the Caribbean, you can always pretend, right?
59 Charterhouse Street, London EC1M 6HA, 020 7490 1209