I attended a media grand opening dinner last night of Cuba Libre, an impressively elegant new restaurant and nightclub at Pointe Orlando. It's a stunning settting: a two-story space that gives one a sense of what it must have felt like to stand in a plaza in the old Havana of the 1950s. Or maybe on a movie set depicting a scene from that era anyway. Though totally indoors, it's like standing in a outdoor courtyard, with a patio for dancing and entertainment and a grand staircase leading to balcony dining. The atmosphere is truly impressive.
The food and drinks, not so much.
Everything I sampled was rather bland or, in the case of the drinks, ill-prepared. And when you consider that this was an event for the media where, presumably, the restaurant was showing its best, that's all the more disappointing.
Let's start with the drinks. The full name of the restaurant is Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, so you'd think rum drinks would be a specialty. The bar was pushing mojitos when I arrived, but the first one I tasted was sugary sweet. I dumped that in favor of a sangria, which tasted watered down.
Then someone suggested I order a premium mojito, which I presume was made with a higher grade of rum, but that didn't help either.
So I figured I'd order the restaurant's namesake: a Cuba Libre of light rum Coca Cola and limes. It was characterless. I was on my fourth cocktail and hadn't had more than one sip out of each.
For the fifth cocktail I requested a caipirinha, which is Brazilian instead of Cuban and made with cacacha instead of rum. This one was a keeper, but no sooner did I have it in hand than we were called to the dining room.
The menu is under the direction of Guillermo Pernot, a former James Beard Award winner for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic States as well as a Beard cookbook award for a collection of ceviche recipes. He was also named Chef of the Year by Esquire magazine in 1999, so he's no lightweight in the kitchen. I'm wondering who's pulling him back.
We started with a salad of watercress with crumbles of Cabrales, the tangy blue cheese of Spain. Fresh, but indistinguished.
A fish course followed comprised of sea bass a la plancha a Chino-Cubano. Yes, a Chinese version of a Cuban dish, complete with fried rice and a sesame sauce. I found it rather strange, although the quality of the fish was good.
The meat course had grilled skirt steak on a sugar cane skewer paired with roast pork stuffed mofongo -- not an ingredient in the bunch that I don't love. Yet it was all almost flavorless, without any seasoning. It looks like this will be another Latin restaurant that's afraid of offending the delicate palates of tourists. That's a shame.
The entertainment was impressive. A couple of dancers performed some hot and sexy salsa steps, and a young man who appeared to be a classically trained opera singer used his wonderful voice to interpret some Latin favorites. I would go back to Cuba Libre just to hear him sing again.
I wonder if they'd let me bring in my own cocktails.
Cuba Libre is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive, Orlando. It is open nightly for dinner and late night dining. Entrees range from $18-$31.50. The phone number is 407-226-1600.