When the pair of cordial thick-necked bruisers requested I remove my hat before entering this brassy two-story behemoth of a restaurant, I'll admit I was a little nonplussed. Would they rather I dine in their establishment with a severe case of hat-head? I mean, this is Pointe Orlando, not Park Avenue, and the restaurant, with all its kitschy details, seems like it could've been Epcot's lost Cuban pavilion. Not to mention the fact that in all my culinary travels in Cuba, not once was I ever asked to remove any headwear. So I found it somewhat ironic and a little pretentious that a restaurant named 'Cuba Libreâ?� would bar me from entering their establishment for not removing my hat. Free Cuba? Whatever.
I made sure my cabeza was free of any gorras on my second visit, and irony of ironies, they sat me outside. Yes, the ghost of Fulgencio Batista was undoubtedly chuckling from beyond the grave, yet after sampling an overly diluted mojito ($8.50) and cuba libre ($9.50), I got a few laughs in myself (unfortunately they were of the snickering variety). But after being seated by my blasé hostess, things got remarkably better thanks in large part to former James Beard award-winner Guillermo Pernot ' the chain's concept chef and a maestro of Nuevo Latino cuisine. I knew restitution was at hand after sampling the subtly crunchy papas rellenas ($9.50). The deceptively light potato croquettes came filled with luscious beef picadillo laced with a smoky guajillo pepper sauce, and each subsequent dish maintained the same level of quality. Heavenly cuts of pulled braised duck inside the cool, crisp and refreshing pato roll ($11) made double-dipping into peanut and ponzu sauces a delight. The spring roll was equally herbaceous and sweet, thanks to watercress, cilantro, candied papaya and mango.
An inordinate amount of time passed before our entrees arrived ' despite a phalanx of waiters and ear-pieced managers patrolling the 20,000 square-foot space, efficiency seemed to be compromised. No matter, I was giddy at the sight of the sea bass a la plancha ($25) when it finally arrived, and not one flaky bit of that chile/citrus/sesame-brushed fish failed to rouse. A nod to Havana's bustling Chinatown came in the form of a side of glistening 'Chino-Cubanoâ?� rice, colored with red peppers, okra, baby cauliflower, peas and carrots. Moros y Cristianos (literally 'Moors and Christiansâ?�), a blend of white rice and black beans, was the centerpiece in the plato cuba libre ($29.50), a platter of standard ropa vieja, succulent churrasco and an outstanding chicken infused with guajillo peppers. The trio of signature dishes in the platter changes nightly, but you're sure to get a representative sampling of traditional Cuban fare no matter what the night.
You'd expect desserts to have tropical leanings and, sure enough, all comprise a fruity component. Tres leches de banana ($8) was wonderfully milky ' being soaked in three banana-flavored milks will do that, though I didn't know three banana-flavored milks even existed. Roasted pineapple accompanies the warm soufflé torte ($8), a pleasing capper layered with dulce de leche and served with dulce de leche gelato.
Like the neighboring Capital Grille and Oceanaire Seafood Room, prices here aren't exactly recession-friendly. Passing the cost of running a grand establishment to the consumer isn't a novel tactic, but at least diners at Cuba Libre are treated to dishes of worth.
And for that, I offer a tip of my forbidden cap.