At Little Havana, Cuba is only the starting point

It's young, boisterous and has a great deck

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

October 23, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Can a Cuban restaurant owned by three American guys deliver authentic food?

Well, maybe, but Little Havana is not that restaurant. Owners Ronnie Prochoren, Tim Whisted and Chris Whisted aren't really trying to create a true Cuban menu. Instead, inspired by Tim's years in the Florida Keys, they use Cuban ingredients and techniques as a starting point for a menu that's in a category all its own.

For example, instead of the meltingly sweet sauteed plantains that are often served as a Cuban side dish, Little Havana uses the plantains to create a crust on a thick piece of mahi mahi.

"We use a lot of Cuban ingredients and change it up," explained Prochoren.

One item that hasn't been tampered with is the delicious mojito, a famous Cuban drink made with rum, lime juice, mint and sugar. Little Havana serves mojitos by the pitcher, with plenty of crushed mint leaves.

The restaurant's big selling point is its wonderful deck overlooking the Inner Harbor, which remains open as long as the weather permits. Inside, the dining area forms a semicircle around a large tropical-themed bar, and colorful Cuban-inspired murals decorate the walls. On the night I was there, the music was boisterous, and scads of twentysomethings were standing by the bar, drinks in hand.

There's a laid-back vibe at Little Havana that unfortunately extends to the service and, to a certain extent, the food. Although my friends and I had a reservation, we waited more than 10 minutes for someone to seat us, even though servers kept walking by. And after we were served, my friend discovered that his Cuban beef stew was completely lacking in a key ingredient: the meat.

When we caught the attention of our server, she promised to bring out another dish of stew. However, she took so long that by the time my friend's food arrived, the rest of us had almost finished eating. Although the new dish had meat, is also had about seven bay leaves in it, which a considerate cook would have removed. To make amends, our server, without prompting, took the price of our desserts off the tab. (She also told us, before we ordered, to avoid the vegetable paella, which we did.)

However, even though they were free, the desserts were hardly worth the price. The Key lime pie tasted of freezer burn, and a pecan flan suffered from a spongy texture.

Appetizers were the best part of the menu. I especially liked the black bean cakes, several small patties that were crisp on the outside, tender on the inside and bursting with garlicky flavor. They came with a dollop of fresh-tasting guacamole, and another dollop of rich sour cream. A dish called salpicon de mariscos featured beautifully fresh tuna, mahi mahi, shrimp and scallops in a spicy tomato sauce. And two small empanadas were greaseless and delightfully savory.

The main courses all had their good points as well as their flaws. You already know about the problems with the Cuban beef stew. Once the bay leaves were picked out, though, it was a hearty mix of tender meat and vegetables in a reddish, paprika-tinged sauce under a puff pastry crust. And it came with a very nice garlicky Caesar salad.

The mahi mahi with a plantain crust featured a pleasant piece of fish and a nice side dish of pineapple and black bean salsa, but the plantain crust was soggy and bland.

And a third entree, the atun caribe, was coated with a flavorful spicy glaze but suffered because the tuna was too dry. A mango slice that was probably intended as a garnish had the skin on, making it difficult to eat.

The food may not be perfect, but it is interesting, and Little Havana is a cheerful place. I happened to visit on a warm, beautiful September night. The restaurant has a children's menu of chicken fingers, burgers and the like, and several families were there with small children. The outdoor tables were full, the bar was busy, music was playing and the sun was setting over the Inner Harbor.

Not exactly Cuba, but not bad, either.

Little Havana

Where: 1325 Key Highway

Call: 410-837-9903

Open: Lunch and dinner on Friday and Saturday, brunch and dinner on Sunday, and dinner on Monday through Thursday

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$7.95; entrees $9-$18.95

Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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