Much more pleasant than the inside. Not that there’s anything really wrong with the interior of Cuba Libre. It does what it means to do: it impresses with its size and the virtual recreation of a Cuban village square, although it’s my guess there are whole villages in Cuba that could fit into this space. Cuba Libre is part restaurant, part theme park. It is, as my companion and I discussed during dinner, the sort of place many visitors expect to find in Orlando. It’s a bit over the top, and more than a little showy. It isn’t the sort of place you find in Des Moines, and that’s the point. There isn’t anything wrong with that.
But it would be a shame for the ambience to overshadow the food. And the food I sampled on my most recent visit was quite good.
I hadn’t been too taken with CL on my previous visits. The food, I thought, was as overproduced as the decor, especially given that the menu was designed by James Beard Award winner Guillermo Pernot. On previous visits, I found the food rather bland and unexciting. And I thought that’s how this dinner was going to go, too, when I got my black bean soup starter course. It was an ample serving, and the beans were a perfect al dente and the broth had a velvety richness. But there was little flavor. I longed for a salt shaker, or a bottle of hot sauce, maybe a dash of vinegar or some tangy onions. The only thing that made the soup more enjoyable were the two arepa-like cookies that were served with it. Cheesy and tasty.
But the word bland could not be used to describe my entree, the lecon asado. The slow-roasted pulled pork was served as a timbale molded with mashed yuca and vigoron slaw, with crunchy cabbage and crispy pork rinds for garnish. This time the seasoning and spices were all bold and flavorful, just a bit of heat. I thought it was amusing when the fellow who delivered the dish told me the bits of pork on top were very crispy and hard, but that there were no bones. Odd, until I bit into one and thought it was a bone! This was definitely a winning dish.
So was my friend’s arroz con pollo. The dish of saffron flavored rice and chicken also had slices of chorizo (thin sliced, like pepperoni), peas, corn and sweet peppers. What gave it an interesting note, no doubt, was the Presidente Beer that was used as a braising liquid.
For dessert, my companion had the tocino del cielo, or Cuban flan, a smooth textured custard with a mild flavor. I had the torta mentirita, a cake meant to taste like a Cuba Libre, or rum and coke. And it did. The rum-soaked cake had an icing that tasted just like Coca-cola. Very interesting, accompanied by a rather small lump of ice cream.
Service was prompt and pleasant. I was especially impressed that the server who greeted us pointed out the Orlando Magical Dining Month menu (from which we ordered) without us having to request it. What’s more, he told us what a great value the menu was, and that $1 from each meal goes to support the Orlando arts community. Very nice. And, I liked that the food runners who delivered the appetizers and entrees placed the dishes in front of us without asking who had ordered each item. It wasn’t until dessert that our plates were “auctioned” to us. Two out of three isn’t too bad.
As I mentioned above, the only thing that could have made the meal more pleasant would have been to enjoy it on the less overwrought patio. The cavernous interior with its echoey noise and cafeteria feel, is probably best left to the nightclub crowd.
Cuba Libre Restaurant Rum Bar is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive. Valet parking is complimentary. The restaurant is open for dinner daily; family-style lunch from 2 p.m. on Sunday. Here’s a link to the Magical Dining Month menu, and this link will take you to Cuba Libre’s Web site. The phone number is 407-226-1600.