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BREAKING THE SPELL

New Cuban cafe is a welcome addition to Brooklyn Heights

for The Brooklyn Paper

Is it possible that the curse of mediocre food in Brooklyn Heights has, if not been broken, then at least been weakened?

And by none other than Nando Ghorchian, the restaurateur whose hit parade of palate-numbing eateries includes Caffe Buon Gusto on Montague Street; the defunct Acqua on Court Street (where I was served salmon in strawberry sauce); and Balzar, a dreary cafe on Henry Street that recently closed. Not knowing what to do with a fine chef turning out delicious Italian fare, Ghorchian even shut the doors on Cafe Del Mar, also in the Heights, before the restaurant developed a following.

So, it was a surprise to discover the lively, surprisingly pleasant, Cafe El Cubanito, a several-months-old Ghorchian eatery on Henry Street. El Cubinato, serving a menu of Central and South American dishes, joins two of the Heights’ best restaurants on Henry Street - Henry’s End and Noodle Pudding.

Unlike Ghorchian’s other establishments, El Cubanito (co-owned with manager Sandra Trapero) has a friendly, quirky charm. The decor is one part kitschy Los Angeles-style cantina with tiled walls and floors, a funky bar setup and tables covered with mismatched, floral tablecloths, and one part laid-back New York bar with tables outside, tattooed waitresses and drink specials scrawled on a blackboard.

While the kitchen, under chef Francesco Musio, formerly of San Domenico on Central Park South, isn’t turning out flawless fare yet, most of what we tried was simple, richly flavored and satisfying. With generous portions and nothing on the menu priced over $12.95, a meal at El Cubanito will sate you nicely and leave money in your pocket for a movie, too.

You can peruse the menu while sipping on a mint-laced mojito or a passion fruit margarita - either of which make a not-too-sweet prelude to your meal. If you want to share, you won’t go wrong with a big pitcher of fruity sangria.

I’d begin the meal with the stew-like, hearty black bean soup. This rendition sports smoky chunks of tender pork, caramelized onions and carrots. Strips of sauteed red peppers brighten the bowl and break up the monotony of the beans.

Salads are large enough to divide as an appetizer or enjoy as an entree. All the ingredients in the salad of shrimp and greens were just right, but the delicate avocado dressing that topped the sprightly lamb’s lettuce, four good-sized garlicky prawns, pieces of crisp asparagus and triangles of manchego cheese, needed a sharper note to pull the ingredients together.

Musio’s version of ceviche, a dish that features fish and shellfish "cooked" in the acid of citrus juice, includes large pieces of firm salmon and shrimp tossed in a chunky puree of ripe tomatoes and topped with a velvety wedge of avocado. Like the salad, the ceviche needed more lemon to brighten its flavors.

Two entrees were enjoyable enough to warrant return visits. The pile of pork ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and lusciously moist. The slight sting of the ribs’ balsamic vinegar glaze pierced the richness of the meat and underscored the sweetness of caramelized pearl onions and baby carrots. For $10.95, the ribs may be the best value in the area.

The chicken, a similar concoction served with the same delicious onions and carrots, was as juicy as the ribs, and splashed with a light, tangy rum sauce. Both entrees are served with bowls of fluffy white rice.

If you’re like me, you’ll like the flavor of the coconut dessert - half a coconut shell filled with shredded coconut mixed in coconut cream - but not the hay-like texture. You’ll like the simplicity of eggy, creamy flan, and you’ll sum up the heavy cashew nut pudding - a big, very nutty tasting, wedge of something between a flan and fallen souffle - in one word: Eh.

Brooklyn Heights’ Montague Street is the butt of every joke about lousy Brooklyn restaurants, and, except for a couple of decent places on the block, it deserves the honor. However, Henry Street may be inching its way toward something that resembles - dare I say it? - a real restaurant row. I don’t mean a glitzy, honky-tonk procession that some of the borough’s streets have become, but an area with cafes offering personal, eclectic well-executed fare.

Sound too good to be true? You may be right, but, for now I’ll play the optimist.

 

Cafe El Cubanito (78 Henry St. at Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights) accepts cash only. Entrees: $10.95-$12.95. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 4:30 pm. For more information, call (718) 243-2402.

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