Thursday, January 14, 2010

Alma de Cuba

My search for good food unexpectedly led me to Philadelphia. After doing a quick research on the Internet, and reading through an exhausting list on I finally settled on Bibou BYOB. Unfortunately, this being a Monday (I guess, things are slow in Philly), the French restaurant was closed; so naturally, I went for the Cuban. Alma de Cuba had an attractive menu and what is more importantly an affiliation with Douglass Rodriguez, a nuevo Latino cuisine maestro whose Olá restaurant in New York I still remember and miss.

Overall food preparation showed promise and creativity. At least the thought was definitely there. But at times dishes seemed contrived - as if trying too hard to impress. The cuisine could definitely benefit from a more nuanced approach. One thing for certain, for better or worst, the boldness of flavor was always there.

Ceviche appetizer sampler was very good. Mixto was clearly the winner - it's flavors coming together perfectly. The second best was Yellowtail Kingfish - which leaned a bit too heavily Japanese. Peruvian Black Bass ceviche was unremarkable and almost mayonnaisee. The yucca fries overpowered the fish and left you with an aftertaste of an oily French fry.

Of course Douglass Rodriguez' classic Royal Palm Dates are a must-try. It's flavors combined effortlessly to produce a tasty and balanced dish. The bacon, just barely discernible, lent smokiness and rounded off the sweetness of the dates. Pulpo con Causa was nearly perfect - octopus grilled flawlessly with slightly charred exterior and tender flesh.

A real problem lied was with the entrees. Rum Cured Duck was a tad rubbery - evidently as a result of the lack of fat - the Heart of Palm side tasted of stale scallions as if it was left to sit there overnight. Duck Confit Fried Rice arrived burned and dried out and didn't taste like a dish but rather an overpriced version of trail mix with it's ingredients just tossed together at the last minute. Aji panca puree should not have been allowed on that plate no matter how authentic it might have been.

Sugarcane Tuna fared better - the tuna was cooked perfectly and served at a perfect temperature. The crust had just the right amount of spice and i think i even tasted cinnamon. Spinach and malanga puree created an excellent companion for the tuna. However the Escabache, very well prepared nevertheless, was overpowering with its sweet and sour punch. Maybe it could have been served better as a dish of its own, or a slight accent on the plate. A classic "less is more" illustration, it managed to deconstruct a perfectly balanced dish.

All that brings me to the final point. And that point is balance. It's OK to celebrate Latino cuisine with its bold flavors and bright colors. I get it. And too be honest, that part has become a cliché of its own and is already expected. But it's one thing to artfully bring two unexpected flavors together so that their interplay underscores each other's character, and it's entirely different thing to bombard your senses with a barrage of flavors and textures like a nouveau riche lover showering you with gifts. It's fun while it lasts but at the end it leaves you with a question - What the hell did i just have?