Friday, November 07, 2003

Alma De Cuba Es Excepcional 

What an amazing dinner I had tonight – one of those rare fine dining experiences where everything comes together just right. My husband and I, along with our dearest friends, went to Alma De Cuba (1632 Walnut Street, Philadelphia). From start to finish, it was exceptional. I’d eaten there with a friend once before, so I had an idea of what to expect, but it’s always a pleasure when a restaurant is consistent.

The space itself captures the spirit of what I imagine Cuba could be and perhaps was once. All three floors of the restaurant radiate a rich red sexy aura. The lounge on the first floor has a captivating bar faced with a multi-colored red glass mosaic that seems to glow from within – it’s hard to take your eyes away from it, no matter who you are dining with! Instead of framed artwork on the lounge walls, black and white photographs are projected onto the whitewashed walls; the effect is mesmerizing. The second and third floor dining rooms have dark mahogany floors and glowing candles on every table. The back room of the third floor, where we were seated, is surrounded by light boxes that project a breathtaking panoramic image of tented tobacco fields.

Best of all, the service was way above par (especially for Philadelphia) and the food was both different and delicious.

Our friends loved their shared appetizer: Paella Ceviche Mixto, which was a mix of seafood served in a pale yellow saffron-lobster sauce. If you’ve never had a ceviche before, it is a variety of seafood (in this case calamari, octopus, shrimp, scallops, and mussels) that is “cooked” by marinating it in lime (or sometimes another acidic citrus fruit, such as lemon). In other words, it’s not sushi, but it hasn't been cooked traditionally, either; the effect is very fresh tasting, silky fish. The portion was a good size and easily shared by two wee Scottish folk.

My husband chose Anticuchos for his appetizer and was obviously quite happy with it, as he never even offered me a morsel until all that was left was the sauce! So, while I cannot speak from personal experience, I can tell you that it consisted of three different meats on skewers (one each of beef, chicken and chorizo, which is a spicy sausage). The beef was cooked in a chimichurri sauce, the chicken had a Cuban-style barbeque sauce called Panca on it, and all three skewers were presented in an ultra-cool martini-style glass, with a sauce the menu called “papas a la huancaina” (potato puree spiked with chilis and perhaps queso fresco) in the bottom.

I thoroughly enjoyed a Mojito Martini, a delicious cocktail consisting of mint soaked rum with limejuice served straight up and ice cold. I also got to sample a Mojito Classico that our server mistakenly brought me (but graciously left behind for sampling) – it was good, but very sweet with an overwhelming syrupy mint flavor. I preferred the Martini.

Throughout our meal, the service was flawless. Our server was well versed in describing the food, wine, and cocktails and gave excellent suggestions throughout the meal. We were never without water or clean silverware, and every time one of us got up to use the restroom, we returned to the table to find that our napkin had been refolded and placed beside our plate. Crumbs were removed between every course. (And we all liked the wonderful thick, soft disposable guest towels in the restrooms!)

For my entrée, my girlfriend and I both took the server’s advice and tried the Beef Tenderloin. We were very happy. The presentation alone was gorgeous (a butterflied sirloin served atop perfectly grilled asparagus), but what was really special was how tender the beef was and how perfectly the spicy crab dressing and ancho basil chimichurri went with it. Both of us enjoyed every mouthful, as was evidenced by our bare plates at the end of the meal.

My friend’s husband tried the Duck Combo. This dish consisted of marinated Muscovy breast served over a watercress salad with an almond flatbread served on the side. The server suggested that the duck was best served medium (instead of medium well, as first requested) and once again, her advice was good.

In my opinion, my husband ordered the best entrée of the evening (I always want what’s on his plate, no matter how happy I am with my own): Lechon Asado. This was crisply roasted pork with a sour orange mojo sauce (I tasted garlic and cumin along with the bright flavor of the sour orange), served with rice and beans and sweet plantains. The last time I’d eaten here, the presentation for this dish was in a gigantic bowl, which made the dish seem less special and more like a casserole. They have since changed the presentation, with the generous serving of pork and plantains separate on the plate and the rice and beans elevated in a small oval dish – much nicer.

I couldn’t resist a Café Cubano at the end of the meal – I am enamored with this pre-sweetened, rich espresso drink. I always get the decaf and it’s always delicious. (Despite it being decaffeinated, I suspect it’s helping me stay up late to write this review!) We also split two desserts. The Creamy Old-Fashioned Tapioca Pudding was served ice cold (just the way my husband likes it) in a fresh coconut alongside of chewy oatmeal guava bars. What I really like about this dessert is that they use the large tapioca pearls, which gives it a great texture. We also tried the nights’ dessert special: a dangerously rich chocolate torte with a melted dulce de leche (caramel) layer topped by a smooth chocolate ganache. Unbelievable; thank goodness the four of us shared two desserts!

As far as the cost, nobody in their right mind would consider it inexpensive, but at $300 for dinner, a bottle of wine, a couple of cocktails, coffee, and dessert, and the amazingly fine service, the experience was worth every penny.

Can’t wait to go again.
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