Times are changing for Cuba and the romanticised scenes of weathered vintage cars coasting the streets of Havana and popularised visions of the island culture sketched by authors like Hemmingway are quickly slipping into the mists of time. Change might be underway, but many of us will always be drawn back to the vibrant, patinated aesthetic of Cuba in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s that nostalgic snapshot of Cuban culture that The Cuban Place, in Sydney’s CBD, draws you into as you step through its doors. Latin rhythms lure you into an open, relaxed bar and dining space with a warm wood and leather décor. It’s an engaging mix of texture and tempo with live music and graffiti walls alongside cosy booths and soft lighting.
The Cuban Place is also embarking on a new era of dining experience with a reimagined menu. We’re lucky enough to get a preview of the new Latin inspired taste with a group of other foodies equally excited to take a culinary trip to old Havana.
With a great attention placed on the pairing of food and wine, we begin with a pinot noir and chardonnay blend partnered with a delicate Kingfish ceviche. The beautifully fresh and light ceviche opens with citrus and vinegar notes that give way to the subtle ocean flavours of the fish. The tang of the Spanish onion and ideal level of saltiness make this palate primer a perfect accompaniment to the sparkling, dry pinot/chardonnay blend.
With the lovely little surprise of the ceviche now a pleasant memory on the tongue, it’s onto the entrees proper. Luckily, I’m fortunate to have backup with me, in the form of expert “stunt-eater” Giulia, and we split the tasting menu down the centre. Begrudgingly, I give in to Giulia and she gets one of my favourites, gnocchi. This is no ordinary gnocchi though! The green banana & potato gnocchi with sautéed mushroom consommé and Manchego cheese is an innovative fusion of a well-known old world staple with the flavours of Latin America. It’s the amazing tenderness that first strikes you with each gnocchi dumpling. So soft that it’s hard to resist using the overused cliché of “it melts in your mouth”… oops, too late! Each little morsel of warm, smooth joy is topped with the perfect accompaniment of Manchego cheese. Savouring the pillows, one per spoonful, is made all the more special as the slightly salty and scrumptiously rich mushroom consommé comes along for the ride. I’m coming back to The Cuban Place by myself next time, just to get my very own big plate of this gnocchi revelation!
My twice cooked pork neck with black bean puree, creamy corn and cassava crackling arrives at the table and I can tell already that this cube of succulent pork is going to be as tender as the gnocchi. I’m not wrong. The weight of the fork alone is enough to part the generous portion and reveal a quality of meat that releases flavour filled juices into the bed of creamy corn and black bean puree. The mingling of these flavours really makes the dish. The black bean is especially suited to the pork and brings back memories of rustic meals in South America. There’s a slight crisp, caramelised coating to the meat as well and this only enhances the flavour and texture experience. Supported by the selection of the Trumpeter Torrentes 2015 from Mendoza Argentina, the wine and entrees leave us wondering how the main dishes could possibly top the entrees?
Our query is quickly quelled in the first taste of the sustainable fish of the day (barramundi) with Veradero sofrito confit, kipfler potatoes and crispy leek. Ok, so I taste a lot of dishes and write a lot of reviews and I try to not overstate things when I come across a plate that really stands out. So, when I say that this fish was simply as good as it could be, I’m not overstating it. At the risk of wearing out the common theme with the food in this review, the tenderness and moistness of this stunningly delicate portion of fish was simply divine. Somehow Chef has been able to expertly balance and preserve the natural notes of the ocean from the fish itself with the satisfying umami created by the slight charring, leeks, potatoes, and confit. I think the people sitting at the table with me were well and truly hoping I would eat more and talk less about how good it was.
The grasslands premium Scotch Fillet with twice cooked potatoes in garlic and rosemary offered up an ideal “turf” counterpoint to the “surf” of the outstanding fish. Ordered rare to taste the true quality of the meat, the Scotch Fillet is presented unadorned on a platter that further highlights that this dish’s aim is to showcase the flavour of high quality beef. Ordering beef rare and actually being served it rare, is an increasingly rare event these days. A chef must be skilled and diligent enough to impart the crucial flavours of the Maillard reaction during the cooking process, but not allow the heat to permeate too intensely through the meat. Once again, the talented chef at The Cuban Place demonstrates his ability to walk that fine line perfectly. The 250g Scotch Fillet is full of flavour and retains a hearty texture that yields nicely in the mouth. The twice cooked potatoes are bundles of fluffy white goodness contained in a crispy shell drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and aromatic rosemary. The tasty side of pesto allows for a nice zest at one’s discretion.
A pleasing match for the Scotch Fillet is the thoughtfully chosen Santa Rita Reserva Carmenere 2014, from the Rappel Valley in Chile. With spicy, strong, and earthy notes, this cabernet comingles nicely with the flavour of the beef and offers a pleasant change in wine selection. It reminds me to make an effort to explore the unique varieties that the Chilean wine industry is doing so well.
With a nice intermission to discuss the meal so far with the other hard-core foodies assembled, the desserts arrive with “ooos” and “ahhs”. Looking like a little diorama of a chocolate moon base, the coffee and chocolate mocha dome with candied peanuts, sweet peanut roll, and salted caramel ice cream is begging to be photographed and then eagerly consumed. Again, it’s all about the careful combining of flavours that really makes these plates sing. A spoonful of the coffee and chocolate dome is introduced to the salty, sweet, nuttiness of the peanut roll, and chased with a dollop of the caramel frostiness. The prominent note is of coffee as it is placed on the tongue, but as the ingredients merge, the chocolate bursts through, accented by the peanutty overtones and crunchy textures. The portion size is spot on, as this is a decadently rich little plate of deliciousness.
Most of us have a soft spot for anything “banana bready” and definitely anything with the word pudding in it. Why not join the two for the ultimate comfort food? The sticky banana pudding with lime juice and whipped coconut cream takes all the cosy comfort and adds the influence of the south with the zest of lime and creaminess of coconut. Soft, warm, and light, the pudding is close to a muffin texture, but holds so much more complexity in its flavour. The banana is not in doubt and is highlighted by other spices that lift and contrast the sweetness of the coconut cream. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a simply outstanding meal. As a cherry a top a delicious sundae, we’re treated to a lovely little dessert wine by the name of Santa Rita late harvest Muscatel of Alexandria/Gewurztraminer 2014, Limari valley in Chile. If you are partial to a refined sweet dessert wine, this will ring all the right notes. There’s no treacly sweet aftertaste and the light flavours of fruit and wood break through the sweetness.
With the sweet taste of Santa Rita Muscatel still lingering on the tongue, we say our goodbyes to our equally satisfied foodie friends and head for the door knowing we’ll be back to sample even more of the Cuban inspired creations of The Cuban Place.
* Coco and Vine dined as guests of The Cuban Place.