The goods: There’s no shortage of Cuban food in Miami. But upscale Cuban – complete with white linens, genteel service and a precise approach to cooking – was missing in South Beach. Which brings us to Chef Douglas Rodriguez and his new Cuban-inspired restaurant at the Hotel Astor dubbed, appropriately, D. Rodriguez Cuba. Rodriguez is both a James Beard award winner and the chef credited with creating “Neuvo Latino” cuisine exemplified at his popular OLA restaurant at the Sanctuary hotel. Sexier than Versailles and more imaginative than Yuca, this sophisticated spot is the place to go when friends are in town and want that authentic Miami experience, complete with minty mojitos and the sounds of salsa, samba, and meringue providing the soundtrack to a feast of crispy pork and empanadas.
It’s hard not to think about all the failed restaurants that have inhabited the Astor’s handsome dining room including French eatery Maison d’Azur, Joley and Johhny Vinczencz’s ill-fated Johhny V. And that’s just in the last three years. But Rodriguez is as optimistic as his cuisine is clever and it’s possible that he’s hit on the right formula to create a beach staple on par with Barton G and Prime 112.
Ambiance: Housed in the subterranean space at the deco hotel, there’s a stylized tropical vibe to the dining room, with glowing amber chandeliers, cream suede chairs and shiny terrazzo flooring hearkening back to the 50’s. On warm nights the outdoor patio is the place to be, with lantern-strewn trees and cabana tables nicely secluded from the Washington Ave traffic by tall, romantic hedges.
The grub: Creative takes on traditional Cuban cuisine. The food is less adventurous here than at OLA, but there are some quirky touches both in flavor profiles and presentation – that differentiate this restaurant from your typical black beans and rice spot. Don’t expect lunch counter prices here though, as cocktails average about $12 and tapas range $7-$15, and most mains are under $25.
Dinner starts with a bowl of homemade plantain chips and a zesty sofrito dipping sauce. From there venture to the list of about a dozen tapas where a pliant octopus dish cooked in a broth spiked with wine corks (said to be an old Italian tradition) shares space with tapas like bacalao (codfish) fritters and black bean beef tacos. He’s also added a few ceviches and flatbreads made with yucca flour topped with thin strips of raw tuna and chili paste and a duck confit rendition topped with shaved foie gras that isn’t necessarily Cuban but hits some high notes. The snapper soup is an ideal starter on a cool night, spiced with cilantro and poured over a tempura-fried lemon while the plantain crust that surrounds the mahi mahi skewers could probably make even tripe irresistible.
Things get a bit whimsical with the oxtail stew, bathed in a musky mix of olives and tomatoes, as it arrives to the table in a sealed tin can that is then cranked open by a server and poured ceremoniously on the plate. There’s a classic arroz con pollo on the menu, made with chicken thighs and yellow rice and fish dishes like a seared salmon over roasted corn tamale. For desserts you can’t go wrong with the chocolate cigar, presented in a cigar box and wafting pungent tobacco-scented smoke. The cigar and matches are edible, made of spun sugar and rich chocolate ganache. The guava cheesecake also satisfies in a not-too-sweet way.
Verdict: The location may be loaded with bad karma but here’s hoping Douglas Rodriguez beats the odds with this spirited Havana-esque newcomer.