Cafe Reviews

CARIB CAGE

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Even thinner plantain chips called chicharitas taste commercial. Sure enough, when I ask our waitress about them, she admits they're straight out of a bag. They shouldn't be, not in a Cuban "homestyle" restaurant. Wouldn't a good mama make them from scratch?

The best plantain dish I sample is the maduros, grilled ripe plantains. If you like bananas, I recommend this sweet and very satisfying side dish.

Of the entrees sampled, I favor those made with pork. Cerdo Caribe consists of three chop-size fillets seasoned with garlic, lime, cumin, salt and pepper. Simple, but oh, so good.

A hot Cuban hero sandwich is outstanding. The Cubano features Virginia ham, garlicky roast pork, melted Swiss cheese, sour pickle and yellow mustard piled atop fresh-baked Cuban bread, which bears resemblance to French bread, but with a paler, softer crust. It is hearty and delicious.

Among the losers, I would have to list the aforementioned bistec Caribe and cangrejo Caribe--nearly unidentifiable chunks of crab drowning in Creole sauce of tomato, pepper, garlic and onion.

A starter of ceviche, the day it was available, was spicy, tart and tasty. It is different from the Mexican version; the seafood is chopped more finely and mixed with a greater proportion of vegetables, primarily tomato and green onion.

For dessert, try the flan. Cafe Caribe's tiny version is characterized by a creamy, nonslippery texture and strong caramel flavor. I like it.

Finally, what does bad jazz have to do with Caribbean food? The music at Cafe Caribe definitely needs some rethinking. The current soundtrack is an unfortunate hybrid combining the worst aspects of new-age, contemporary lite-jazz and salsa. Play something with guts, something real. How about the Emperor of Mambo Perez Prado or the venerable Tito Puente?

It is hard not to want Cafe Caribe to succeed. My love for this type of food might keep me coming back, but not without a certain dread. Better management, like standardizing procedures in the kitchen, would do much to eliminate my doubts.

When Gilbert Hernandez opened Havana Cafe a little more than a year ago, his biggest problem was finding a table for everyone. After a no-reservation policy was instituted at the tiny Camelback restaurant, the problem grew acute. Customers found waiting outdoors on the cafe's small patio less than ideal most months of the year.

As a solution, Hernandez decided to develop Havana Cafe's unused second floor into an area to serve customers waiting for tables, as well as private parties.

The new room, christened Arriba!, opened in December. Accessible by outdoor stairs only, the upstairs room is outfitted with a full bar and several tables. Arriba! has a separate kitchen and wait staff. The decor mirrors the downstairs: lace curtains, gray walls, black furniture, artifical bougainvillea, bold print tablecloths.

The primary difference is the menu. Arriba! serves tapas, while Havana Cafe continues to offer a full menu. Tapas, the hot and cold "little dishes" of Spain, are best described as appetizer-sized savory concoctions of seafood, ham, cheese, olives and so forth. It is more than possible to make a meal of them. A dining accomplice and I did just that on two recent occasions.

Arriba!'s tapas menu is split into three sections: hot, cold and "sandwiches." On the hot side, my favorites are the squid sauteed in its own piquant black ink, the fried smelts with a lovely citrusy dipping sauce and the creamy potato croquettes stuffed with ground meat and peppers.

I would have to rate the greasy shrimp pancakes, the unexciting fried calamari and the so-what sauteed Spanish sausage among the less successful of the hot dishes auditioned.

Of the two cold combination tapas offered, go for the combinacion de tapas, not the combinacion de banderillas. The latter consists of chunks of cheese, meat and stuffed green olives stabbed onto six sword-shaped toothpicks. Big deal. The tapas combination offers a nice sampling of ham, garlic-tinged giant green olives and manchego cheese, along with a wedge of omelet, a small meat-filled turnover and other goodies. If you're new to tapas or simply waiting upstairs for a table, this is a good one to try.

Also recommended from the cold menu is the three-meat pate. Decorated with pimiento and served with green pepper-mustard sauce and Cuban crackers, the chicken, pork and veal pate is coarse and homey--a delightful snack. A marinated mixture of seafood is also pleasant, though a tad murky with too much vinaigrette.

The Cubano sandwich is not available during our visits. Too bad, because it sounds great--though our waitress insists it's "just like a grilled club sandwich." We do try the somewhat unspectacular empanada Gallega. Served room temperature, the square of pastry shell with a chicken, pimiento and onion filling is just not stimulating enough to order again.

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Penelope Corcoran