History in the Making
Cuba Libre showcases the fantastic flavors of Guillermo Pernot’s remarkable culinary journey.
Walking into Cuba Libre, the massive restaurant at Pointe Orlando, is like stepping back to pre-revolution Havana in the 1950s … or it’s supposed to be. Soaring two stories, the restaurant is styled as the open courtyard of a hacienda in Old Havana, an outdoor-yet-indoor space of columns, tinted plaster and street-scene murals that is probably more impressive to those not familiar with grand theme-park illusions.
The vast space echoed when I was there on an early weekday dinner hour, as a nebulous mix of reggaeton, salsa and Latino urban dance tunes boomed throughout, shattering the hacienda illusion. I longed for the changüi music of Orquesta Revé or jazz by the great pianist Rubén González. But once the plates arrived, my leisurely grumpiness vanished—the waiters could have hummed show tunes and served me in a cardboard box and I would have been happy. And all that is thanks to the vision of Chef/partner Guillermo Pernot. Completely self-taught, Pernot started cooking at a bed-and-breakfast in suburban Pennsylvania, attracting the attention of foodie magazines. He cooked at Allioli restaurant in Miami during the South Beach renaissance in the 1980s, then returned to Philadelphia, where he introduced Nuevo Latino cuisine to the Ciudad del Amor Fraternal with his restaurants Vega Grill (best new chef, Food & Wine magazine) and ¡Pasión! (James Beard Award for “Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic Region”).
Cuba Libre opened in Philly in 2001, with an assist from Pernot, who designed the menu and trained the chefs. In 2006, he was invited to join the growing chain as a partner and has been steadily revising and adapting the menu to include classic Cuban recipes and bold adaptations. The Orlando location opened in 2008; José Gonzalez is the chef de cuisine.
The Havana of today embraces an emerging food scene of organic farms and privately owned restaurants, called paladares. The formerly underground scene is producing a new generation of professional chefs who are opening adventurous restaurants in their own homes. Pernot, born in Argentina, has traveled extensively to the island with his Cuban-born wife, Lucia (whose great-great-grandfather was the third president of Cuba), and uses this newborn energy as inspiration for some of his nuevo Cubano dishes.
Pernot’s recipes are all about sensations: contrasts of spice and sweet, differences in temperature, the outside crunch of a croquette giving way to tender beef and smooth potato. He dresses hot dishes with cold pickled salads, like in the albondigas Camagüey, a beef, pork and pine nut meatball topped with hot and sour mushrooms, served as a piqueo, the Peruvian version of tapas ($14 for two plates). “The hot and cold notes, that’s my trademark,” he says with justified pride.
Pernot discovered another small plate at La Cocina de Lilliam in Havana—rituras de malanga, a deep-fried fritter of wonderfully creamy purple taro root, garlic and cilantro that melts in your mouth. Arroz con pollo ($21) takes its cues from a 20-seat restaurant called La Guarida, combining fragrant saffron rice with savory chicken thighs, wild mushrooms, peas, olives and a hard-boiled egg. A splash of Spanish beer and cold roasted pepper salad completes the dish.
The modern nuevo fusion offerings are brilliant: El Chinito Cubano ($8) wraps a classic Cuban sandwich in a crunchy spring roll; and camarones con caña ($27.50) offers juicy pan-seared shrimp in a spicy-sweet mango barbecue glaze, skewered on sugar cane and served with a deep-fried Anaheim pepper stuffed with sweet potato, quinoa and Mascarpone cheese.
I was seduced by the tasting menu, billed as “15 Tastes of Cuba” ($39.95), a feast of five appetizers, three entrées, two side dishes and two desserts. It begins with a trio of dips: black bean hummus, a signature pineapple-based Cuba Libre salsa, and rum-cured smoked marlin salad that had me licking the bowl. Shrimp cocktail with avocado salsa followed, along with a crisp chicken and corn empanada, papas rellenas croquettes filled with spiced beef, and those fabulous frituras with house-made tamarind ketchup.
The entrees (the menu changes twice a year) included grilled skirt steak, charred on the outside and satisfyingly chewy within, served with a tart, marinated mushroom salad; the aforementioned camarones con caña; and Dorado à la plancha, a griddle-seared mahi mahi fillet atop black rice cooked in a rich lobster court bouillon. And black beans and rice, and fried plantains, and servings of flan and tres leches cake.
A very crowded nightclub scene takes over on Saturday nights, with salsa dancers and DJs inhabiting the space after dinner, so plan ahead. More branches of the chain’s tree are in the works (four exist at the moment), but the weather in Orlando seems particularly suited to the style of the restaurant. “It’s always summer in Havana,” Chef Pernot says, and there’s always something to discover at Cuba Libre.
Sample one of Cuba Libre’s 70 rum offerings or a refreshing mojito while taking advantage of “Caippy Hour” in the bar area daily from 5 to 6:30 p.m., when small plates of empanadas, guacamole, croquettes and fritters are 5 bucks apiece.
9101 International Drive