Depending on your perspective, the food at Cafe Habana is either refreshingly straightforward or tremendously ordinary.
Consider the restaurantís star dish: grilled corn on the cob, topped with chilli powder and grated cheese and doused with lime. Served simply on a skewer, itís messy and unfussy.
An outpost of the revered Latin-flavoured luncheonette in New York that opened in 1998 on a residential corner in Manhattanís Nolita area, Cafe Habana serves Cuban-Mexican fare inspired by old-time Hispanic eateries.
Compared to the original spotís cramped quarters and offbeat mood, this one at Downtown Dubaiís Souk Al Bahar is a relatively polished and not all that small of an affair, with barstools and a few outdoor tables, aside from the main dining area.
But it has the charm of a hideaway that hasnít been worked over by the local restaurant scene. In fact, the best time to go is mid-afternoon, when itís less frenetic. Some places come alive when theyíre crowded; this oneís vibrant when itís empty, when you can slouch on the couches.
The kitchenís lack of pretence was evident in the Cuban sandwich Ė corned beef, pastrami, Swiss cheese, chipotle mayonnaise and pickles, all hugged by a toasted roll and served with hand-cut French fries. The purpose of the dish, evident in its plain presentation and humming flavour, is not showmanship but to offer comfort.
The grilled shrimp tacos are a hit. The shrimps alone had little character, but paired with guacamole and salsa, then topped with citrus zest and olive oil, itís a pow to the palate.
Enchiladas suizas featured the terrific, moist flesh of grilled chicken. They are topped with grated cheese and raw onion slices, albeit sparingly, so that no one effect trumps any other. Doused in creamy salsa verde, they carried the kind of cheesy charge the enchilada hasnít received many times before. Decadent on their own, they are nonetheless given robust accompaniment by rice and beans.
It would be easy to fill up before dessert but it would also be foolish. An offering called banana foster is a treat Ė caramelised bananas served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It hits the spot.
The dish is an indication of the kitchenís readiness to tilt in unexpected directions to delight you, without succumbing to gastronomic fireworks.
Cafe Habana could seemingly do no wrong, until the server suggested we try what she said was their speciality: tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk Ė evaporated, condensed and whole, then topped with whipped cream, chocolate powder and strawberry slices. Yet itís relatively uneventful, a feat of near-flavourlessness. Perhaps in a desire to be subtle, the cake is delivered to a whispery, muffled effect. Neither here nor there, not soggy or chewy. (As a point of contrast, a delightful tres leches can be had at Toro Toro in Grosvenor House.)
That said, the four-month-old Cafe Habana is a welcome addition to the UAEís many over-thought and overwrought dining destinations. By turns adventurous and safe, it relies on performance more than pose. Although none of the dishes are spectacularly original, almost all were irresistible.
Alas, a restaurant has to earn to survive Ė and Cafe Habana does follow some dictates of many a cautious restaurateur, like the beloved ritual of Friday brunch.
On some nights, it pivots on an air of exclusivity in the form of a DJ spinning the decks in a corner and a bartender entertaining with juggles and flips. Yet the restaurant remains accessible and unusually earnest, a feat considering its Souk Al Bahar location. It can get very lively, but not oppressive.
A stylish hybrid of a neighbourhood tavern and a snazzy destination diner, if Cafe Habana can focus on its pleasures, not preciousness, it could be a model for a restaurant for the here and now.
ē A meal for two at Cafe Habana costs Dh385 including service. For reservations, call 04 422 2620. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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