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BREAKING THE SPELL • Brooklyn Paper

BREAKING THE SPELL

Oh Henry!: On Monday and Wednesday nights, guitarist Berto Gonzalez plays at Henry Street's Cafe El Cubanito;.
The Brooklyn Papers / Greg Mango

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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