Cubana Bar and Restaurant, Smithfield
After recently opening their second restaurant in London's Smithfield, Cubana have decided to host a series of free tasting events where customers can learn about and taste authentic Cuban Street Food.
Cubana's main restaurant is in Waterloo and is already very popular amongst customers for their exquisite cocktails and daily happy hour deal. This venue that opened two months ago is located near Farringdon and has been built and designed for lovers of excellent coffee, cocktails and food. The restaurant layout is separated into three sections; the coffee bar and pastry counter is on the right hand side at the entrance, the Street Food takeaway counter in the middle and as you go through into the back is the lively dining area of the restaurant with an open kitchen.
When we arrived and sat down, the Managing Director of Cubana Phillip Oppenheim introduced himself and explained what dishes we would be eating, how they are traditionally prepared and cooked and why they have chosen to feature these particular specialities on their menu. Cubana's menu includes lots of choice and aims to encapsulate a taste of Old Cuban style food. The dishes focus on traditional, slow-cooked Cuban classics like marinated and slow roasted outdoor-reared Blythburg herd pork that you can choose to accompany with tapas dishes like Spanish chorizo, Latin American specialities and barbacoa prepared in-house on their robata open-fire grill.
The Cubana Kitchen really believes in traditional Cuban cuisine. Their commitment to achieving this was evident through the number of relevant facilities on site such as their bakery that bakes fresh bread and pastries throughout the day, their new coffee roastery and the robata grill for barbacoa. Most impressively though, was learning how Phillip has chose the restaurant's specially imported products that are sourced from small, independent, family-led farms and companies in Cuba and abroad in order to produce an experience almost identical to the Old Cuban style cuisine.
Sustainability at Cubana
Cubana's ethos targets sustainability and animal welfare by using free-range pork, chicken and eggs and Marine Stewardship Council certified wild fish. Their beef is prime 100% British Beef, their steaks are dry-aged prime British beef and the organic chorizo comes from a family farm in Spain. I was delighted to hear that they received the Good Egg Award last year as well as the Good Sow Commendation 2015. The Good Egg award is given to companies who have committed within five years to using cage-free eggs or egg products by Compassion in World Farming, an organisation that works towards better food through supporting animal welfare in farms and food businesses.
Our selection of Cuban cuisine to taste. Middle to right:
Slow-roasted, free-range Cuban style pork (Blythburgh Herd free-range pork, that is marinated, slow-roasted and shredded)
Plantain; firmer, less sweet bananas that are cooked. Phillip explained to me that these should be cooked when really ripe and very dark.
Freshly baked bread, baked on site and served fresh
Chilli Rice with plantain and lime
Ropa Vieja (above) - Cuban shredded beef
Cuban cooking focuses on a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates and seasonal fruits and root vegetables that thrive in Cuba's tropical climate, (giving a great selection of choice for vegetarian options on the menu too). Although Cuban food is mild in heat, its tastiness comes from its tangy, fresh flavours. These traditional components fuse into Cubana's drinks too and beverage favourites such as coffee and mojitos are concocted in-house with the freshest source of ingredients. For example, they only use rum that is imported from the South of Cuba and their coffee beans are 100% Cuban too.
Picadillo: A Cuban-minced casserole with olives and raisins
Cuban cuisine is a mix of African, Spanish, Caribbean and French and after spending a year in France, I could see influence of good-quality meat in Cuban cooking that was likely inspired by the French colonists who came to Cuba from Haiti. All of the food was delicious; in particular the meat, which was really succulent. I also noticed that the slow-cooked meat was not greasy as you often find with curries made from slow-cooked meat. Things that were new to me at Cubana were the shredded pork with fresh lime juice squeezed over it; I had definitely been missing out there! This was also my first time eating plantain. I liked the firmer texture to regular dessert bananas but as Phillip mentioned, I think if slightly riper, I would have loved the slightly softer texture and darker colour. The Jamaican influence of the free-range chicken coated in an orange marinade was fantastic and gave it a slightly sticky texture.
Left to right: Chilli Rice, Pollo Crillo (free-range chicken marinated in orange and casseroled) and plantaine
Phillip Oppenheim, the Managing Director of Cubana tells me more about his love for Cuban Cooking:
What makes Cuban food different?
It's southern, focuses on great ingredients and Cuban food is more mild and under spiced than other cuisines. It's also a nice amalgam of Spanish and North African influences with some West African influence there too.
Where does your influence and passion for Cuban food come from?
I've worked abroad a lot and have had a lot of foreign influence. For example, I spent some time working in Japan with an original passion for the Japanese cuisine. I soon discovered the great culture behind Cuban cooking which I found lacked the slightly corporate of other popular cuisines.
What is your favourite dish?
I would say Picadillo brown beef with olive and raisins. I used to be a huge fan of Cuban shredded pork with ripe plantain, black beans and rice but I've eaten so much shredded pork that I think I've gone off it now! I'm still a big fan of plantain, but the key to cooking green plantain right, is to make sure it's ripe. It should be almost black when you fry it!
Why should we eat more Cuban food?
The meat is slow-cooked and overall, Cuban food is relatively healthy. Slow-cooking means almost zero-fat and it includes a lot of black beans (high fibre and rich in protein). Overall it's a really great balance of all the things you need; protein, vegetables, fruit, carbohydrates, fibre, the flavours are not hot, (cuban cuisine is not for people who want spicy food), it's free-range, sustainably sourced and it's good quality!
Cubana's Coffee Roastery and Pastries
We were then introduced to Tom, the Head Coffee Roaster at Cubana. After doing a degree in Physics, Tom decided to pursue a career in coffee roasting and his love for coffee really shone through in the quality, ease and smoothness of his work.
Cubana have a machine (above left) that they use to roast their coffee beans in small quantities; this ensures freshness and coffee that gives a light but strong kick. Tom also explained to us that Cuba's climate is perfect for growing coffee beans as the soil there is rich and loamy (which means it has a good balance of sand to silt). They are grown by farmers in the Cuban mountains where the beans can thrive under the cool shade of trees and ripen slowly to develop their full flavours. Yummy!
As well as a flourishing kitchen and Coffee Roastery, Cubana also has a bakery where all of their fresh pastries and bread (below) are made. I was really astonished by how much talent and hard work was all going on under one roof! The coffee counter is open all day but the best time to go is in the morning when the pastries have come straight out of the oven. The level of skill, freshness and taste really blew me away. The cinnamon roll (right) was made with an orange glaze and is perfect as a morning treat with some fresh Cuban coffee before work. Below is picture of some of the fresh baguettes from the bakery.
Cubana is the perfect place to visit for so many reasons. The food is outstanding and very reasonably priced, the atmosphere really encapsulates Cuban culture and you can visit Cubana for great food, great coffee AND great cocktails too! I also felt that Cubana really has all the right boxes ticked; I often find that establishments try to incorporate too many features into the dining experience but Cubana seem to effortlessly excel in every aspect of their work. Their commitment to sustainability and animal welfare is something I hope to see more of in 2016 too.
As someone who is passionate about great food and has dreamed of opening a cafe or restaurant, I found visiting Cubana and speaking to Phillip and the team about their work very inspirational. I was so blown away by how educational and fun the tasting event was that I couldn't wait to head back again in the evening for their cocktail workshop. To find out more about Cubana's Mojito Workshop and to see me making some, you can click here.
The team there are so professional and most importantly, they are passionate about what they do which really added to the day's experience. Thank you again to Phillip, Tom and the rest of the team there for all their hospitality and for an unforgettable Cuban-themed day.
59 Charterhouse St,
London EC1M 6HA