Stepping into Casa Cubana for the first time, one is immediately transported from a busy corner of Oakland to a restaurant in Havana. That, or a museum — I’m not sure which.
Confusion is warranted, because owner Sam DuVall fell in love with Cuba many years ago, and has been collecting art from the island nation for decades. He spent the better part of a year outfitting the former Vo’s Restaurant to look like old Havana, with a backlit yellow bar, wrought-iron railings, high ceilings complete with ceiling fans, and the requisite Buena Vista Social Club playing in the background.
I say all this never having been to Havana myself, but the restaurant definitely looks like the Havana I’ve imagined from the movies.
Casa Cubana is far from DuVall’s first restaurant venture. He’s been in the industry for over 50 years, and he currently owns Izzy’s Steak and Chop Houses in San Francisco and San Carlos as well as the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. It’s also not his first Cuban restaurant; Duvall owned San Francisco’s Habana in the early aughts.
DuVall has also owned two art galleries in San Francisco, and has over 300 pieces of art to his name. With so much artwork on hand, he clearly needed someplace to display his collection. While the restaurant wasn’t busy enough on a Tuesday night to warrant seating people in its enormous back room, it was worth a look — some of the most eye-catching art is on display there.
The pride the staff takes in working at Casa Cubana is immediately apparent. They’re all incredibly friendly. Plus, it’s clear that this is much more than just a restaurant to the owner, and the staff have adopted that attitude as well. The host, Peter, has visited Cuba with DuVall, and he was happy to show me around and point out some of the better-known Cuban artists.
Clearly the art and aesthetics certainly made an impression, but what about the food? NOSH recently accepted a complimentary meal to find out.
DuVall’s partner in many of his latest ventures has been executive chef Joe Kohn, who has designed a menu that fuses traditional Cuban flavors with more modernist techniques.
Our server recommended the two most popular cocktails, a Mojito and a Havana Sidecar to start. While the Mojito was a bit lacking in the sweetness department, my husband loved his Sidecar, a combination of aged rum, orange curacao and citrus, and we both fought over the Zanahoria, an inspired concoction of El Jimador Reposado tequila, carrot, orange, lime and ground cumin, all garnished with a lime twist. We were only sorry we didn’t get to try the Remolacha, not only because it’s so fun to say, but because its components — beet-infused vodka, lemon-ginger liqueur and cilantro — sounded so intriguing. Next time.
We began with two appetizers, a Habana Cocktail and Tierra Frita. The cocktail — made with shrimp, avocado, mango, and tomato — was a Cuban twist on the classic dish served in a sundae glass with yucca chips on the side. We enjoyed the combination of ingredients, even though the out-of-season tomato was, sadly, pale, but we wanted the dish to be more ceviche-like, with a strong punch of acid and heat. A squeeze of lime and hot sauce perked it right up. Later, our server later told us that the cocktail was supposed to be like an American shrimp cocktail, which was why the flavors were so intentionally subtle.
The Tierra Frita was a huge serving of fried goodness. I ordered it mostly because I wanted to try the crisp hearts of palm, and they did not disappoint. Our server pointed out that they give the experience of a vegan calamari, and we thought it was a great comparison. (Though for the record, I liked it better than most calamari.) Along with the hearts of palm were slices of fennel, onion and green beans. On the side — a chipotle remoulade for dipping and dunking. We couldn’t get near to finishing the portion, but especially appreciated the mix of vegetables one doesn’t usually find in such a dish.
It should be noted though that while Cuban cuisine definitely tends toward the carnivorous, Casa Cubana has plenty of intriguing vegetarian dishes to choose from — especially in the appetizer section — and no doubt a great meal could be made from these dishes. I was particularly intrigued by the Ceviche Vegetal, a vegetarian ceviche with cauliflower, avocado, yams, pepitas, lime, cilantro and crispy taro, but will have to try it on another visit.
For our mains, we struggled with what to order, and the servers’ descriptions only made the decision harder. We settled on the Pato Capri, a sous vide duck breast with squash, corn, cabbage and a tamarind chili glaze. The glaze was our favorite part, though there easily could have been more of it. There was no such issue with the Costilla de Guayaba, guava-glazed ribs with jicama slaw and mariquitas (plantain chips). Cooked for 13 hours, the sauce was sticky sweet salty perfection, though we felt the slaw could use a bit more acid.
We also enjoyed our side of maduros (fried sweet plantains), served with a slightly spicy dipping sauce.
Desserts came in the form of a guava cheesecake with dragonfruit sauce and a flan with mango caramel and sesame tuile. Both were on the lighter side and not overly sweet, which after this meal was much appreciated.
The wine list features a good mix of Californian, South American and European varietals and the staff is adept at pairing a glass to your entrée. There are also a handful of beers on tap.
Given its proximity to the Kaiser building and other offices, Casa Cubana should do well with the lunch crowd. (It serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., during which the menu has many of the same offerings, plus salads and sandwiches, including, of course a Cubano). The restaurant should also should do well with the post-work crowd for happy hour (from 4-7 p.m.) too.
Casa Cubana is worth visiting for the art alone, so one can witness the work and style of artists not so easily seen in this country. But while there, it’s definitely worth staying for the food, too.
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