With President Donald Trump in the White House, the status of the long-contentious U.S.-Cuba relationship remains in flux, but one thing is certain: Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar in downtown Washington is doing its part to bridge the divide.
The restaurant’s new executive chef, Angel Roque, is a native of Havana who has teamed with two-time James Beard Award-winning chef-partner Guillermo Pernot to reinvigorate the seven-year-old eatery’s food and cocktail menus. Roque studied at Cuba’s premier culinary school, the Asociación Culinaria de Cuba, where he graduated first in his class. Soon after, he was offered a job as a pastry professor, a position he held for nine years, and which also introduced him to Spanish and French cuisine.
Roque eventually opened his owned private restaurant, one of the few on the communist island, before going on to helm Restaurante Café del Oriente, one of Havana’s most prestigious restaurants. Roque struck a friendship with Pernot during one of Pernot’s culinary trips to Cuba in 2010 (also see “To Bring International Inspiration to D.C., Chefs Go Straight to the Source” in the February 2017 issue of The Diplomat). Deciding to explore new culinary frontiers, Roque moved to Philadelphia in 2015 to become a sous chef at Cuba Libre’s flagship restaurant.
The timing of Roque’s arrival in Washington from Philadelphia couldn’t be better as Americans seek to take advantage of former President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions to the Caribbean country. Suddenly, interest in Cuban culture and culinary traditions is soaring as American tourists head south to visit in droves (also see “Cuba Opens Itself to Travelers, But Change Won’t Come Overnight” in the October 2016 issue of The Diplomat).
But for an authentic taste of Cuba, Washingtonians need only go as far as downtown. Our recent dinner at the spacious and festive eatery in Penn Quarter began with an order of Padrón peppers, known to most of us as shishitos. Under Roque’s guidance, they’re perfectly blistered — topped with salt and served with a light mayonnaise dipping sauce. The warm and piquant peppers opened the palate nicely.
Next up? Crab guacamole. Blue crabmeat mashed with grilled pineapple, roasted jalapenos and fresh lime juice combined for a succulent flavor. The appetizer didn’t last long. The ceviche was also a winner, with the Hamachi yellowtail and organic grape tomatoes drizzled in light basil vinaigrette acting as a nice transition to the heavier main attractions.
The Cuban tamale — corn masa filled with chicken, bell peppers and chilies with roasted corn sauce — wasn’t as delectable as it sounds and fell flat despite its appealing ingredients. However, the grilled baby octopus, marinated in truffle and citrus, was perfectly cooked with a lightly charred and pleasantly chewy consistency.
Without a doubt the showstopper on Cuba Libre’s new menu is the crispy pork pata. This slow-roasted — and we mean slow-roasted for 48 hours — pork shank is a carnivore’s dream. Crispy and slightly sweet on the outside and fall-off-the-bone tender and smoky on the inside, the shank comes served in a citrus reduction with a side of seasonal vegetables.
Cuba Libre also offers an intriguing array of Cuban-inspired desserts, coffees and liquors. It’s nice to see a restaurant that, for a while, seemed to be hit or miss when it came to consistency. Pernot is an accomplished and skilled chef in his own right, but we think the addition of Roque to the kitchen gives it an extra dash of authenticity that shows on the plate.
“The team at Cuba Libre is very lucky to have found such a superstar, and I am looking forward to working with Angel in developing new techniques, and showing Washington, D.C., the true meaning of what Cuban food is,” Pernot told us.
Rosario in Adams Morgan
Chalk up a big win for Adams Morgan’s long-moribund dining scene, which has been losing out to booming up-and-coming restaurant destinations like the 14th Street Corridor and Shaw.
Chef Logan McGear, of the barbeque and booze joint Smoke and Barrel, is now also at the helm of Rosario, a hip but cozy new Italian eatery that is elevating the game for pasta and other Italian staples in Northwest Washington. The 60-seat restaurant — in the former space occupied by the absinthe bar Libertine — is a great spot for a fun dinner date or a group meal with friends as a prelude to an evening imbibing on Adams Morgan’s legendary nightlife.
Rosario’s unfussy but well-curated menu offers a nice selection of lighter fare and small bites, as well as salads and some heartier offerings such as osso buco and leg of lamb and veal scaloppini.
On a recent weeknight, we started with a tapenade containing seven different types of olives mixed with garlic and parmesan. The mash was salty and savory and helped build anticipation for the meal ahead. A hearty plate of arancini (stuffed rice balls) anchored by delicious dollops of garlic pesto arrived next. The piping hot orbs stuffed with meaty Bolognese sauce were a revelation and could have worked as a light meal in their own right. A Caesar salad lightly dressed and draped with white anchovies was another winner, especially as it arrived in a beautiful, house-made parmesan cracker basket.
In McGear’s rendition, a main course of osso buco is braised beef shank instead of the customary lamb. The dish was not only visually beautiful but mouth-watering, as well. The tender beef, accompanied with a ricotta salata and saffron risotto, fell apart with the touch of a fork and revealed McGear’s aptitude for cooking meat — a skill he no doubt honed at Smoke and Barrel. Vegetarians, however, need not despair at Rosario. A plate of vegan chicken parmesan didn’t carry the same complexity as the osso buco, but its texture and tangy tomato sauce was convincing while carrying far less fat and calories.
Since Rosario exists in what is essentially a drinking district, it makes sense that it carries a well-stocked bar. But this isn’t just any bar. The restaurant boasts a carefully selected wine list and an impressive array of unique craft cocktails. Although it’s been open barely a month, Rosario has quickly asserted itself as one of Adams Morgan’s premier dining attractions.
The Vault at the Ritz
We can always count on the Ritz-Carlton for luxe accommodations, from its well-appointed hotel rooms to the impeccable and friendly service to the typically solid dining options.
Now, the Ritz on 22nd Street, NW, also offers some of the very best scotch in the world. The elegant Quadrant Bar & Lounge is now home to the Vault, a combination safe measuring six feet high and four feet wide that holds the establishment’s most magnificent and rare reserve spirits.
The latest addition to the list is a hand-blown glass bottle of the 1961 Bowmore 50-year-old single malt scotch whisky from Islay, Scotland. This bottle is part of an exquisite and extremely limited global collection of just 200 bottles that have been issued over the last four years, and is the last of its kind. As you might expect, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.
We asked — and were told the price tag is revealed only to those with a serious intention to buy. (A quick internet search reveals that the bottle runs over $20,000.) Alas, we made do with a couple of glasses of Bowmore’s 12-, 15- and 18-year-old expressions of the rare spirit.
Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar
801 9th St., NW
(202) 408-1600 | www.cubalibrerestaurant.com/en/washington/
2435 18th St., NW
(202) 791-0298 | www.rosariodc.com
The Ritz-Carlton Quadrant Bar & Lounge
1150 22nd St., NW
(202) 835-0500 | www.ritzcarlton.com/washingtondc
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is the dining reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.