¡Ay, Caramba!

January 29, 2007

There’s only one word for what happened on Friday night: sacrilegio. Cubans are passionate people, and you’ll often hear them use this word in a moment of shock.  Anything that goes against their grain is on par with an act against God.   Like a hurricane alert cutting into your telenovela.  Or leaving out the espumita in a café.  In this case, we’re talking about the food that’s trying to pass as Cuban at the new La Bodeguita del Medio in Kensington.

When I told my mother I was going to the restaurant, she responded with a flurry of stories about the original La Bodeguita del Medio in her native Havana.  “Let me know how the platanitos are,” she told me.

Platanitos*?  What platanitos?  No platanitos at La Bodeguita del Medio.  No arroz con frijoles, either.  Or palomilla.  Or tostones.  Or media noche.  Or anything remotely resembling that which I happily grew up on in Miami, really the only place for Cuban food outside Cuba, although New Jersey may try to argue.

Studying the menu (the service was so slow we had a full half hour to do this), I grew from perplexed to downright annoyed.  Quesadillas?  Do you think we’re Mexican?  Nothing against Mexicans – their cuisine is one of the most vibrant and satisfying around, the best of which is actually found in California.  But Cuban it’s not.  And tapas?  Wrong again, amigo. No problem with tapas, either, not at all!  Just not when I want a big plate like my grandmother made.  And what’s this here poached pears?  You must be joking.  Where’s my flan?  The pudín de pan?  My natilla!

After about an hour, enormous plates with tiny food on them came out; and I nearly passed out.  Popcorn strewn on ceviche.  I’m not kidding. Popcorn.  As in Orville Redenbacher.  Empanadas with guacamole (I see we’re back in Mexico now), mini omelettes arranged like Stonehenge.

Okay, let me tell you how it is.  Cubans love food and cooking, but the art in Cuban cuisine is in the taste, not the plating.  We want masses of rice and beans and a steak on top, juices dripping from it.  We want fried plantains heaped in a mound and placed in the centre of the table for everyone to share.  We want a basket of pan Cubano, toasted in a press until little bubbles form on top.  Avocado with onion slivers, olive oil and vinegar.

The right Cuban restaurant would be a comfy diner with generous portions and a respect for simplicity.  Stop it with the gourmet!  Enough of the fusion!  Cubans reserve pomp and circumstance for weddings, funerals and a joie de vivre to make the French jealous.  What this city needs is an honest, unfussy Cuban joint, unpretentious in a mi casa, su casa sort of way.  The original La Bodeguita del Medio was just that – a corner store in the middle of the road where you’d stock up on staples like rice, beans, plantains, cascos de guayaba, mango and mamey.  It later became the home away from home for dishes like puerco asado, ropa vieja and plenty of freshly-caught mariscos.  Nada mas y nada menos.  La Bodeguita del Medio is sacred.  If you’re going to take the name, you had better revere it.

*Cuban 101

Platanitos (plah-tah-nee-toes):  very ripe plantains cut on the diagonal and fried until caramel in colour.

Arroz con frijoles: (ah-ros kohn free-hole-less): rice with black-bean soup spooned on top.  Variation: Moros y Cristianos (more-ohs ee krees-tee-ah-nos) meaning Moors and Christians, or beans and rice cooked together.

Palomilla (pahl-oh-mee-yah): very thin steak large enough to blanket your plate.

Tostones (toes-ton-ehs): Green plantains, squashed with a tostonera, twice fried and seasoned with salt.  Often drizzled with mojo (moe-hoe), a garlicky sour-orange seasoning.

Media noche (meh-dee-ah noe-chay) Meaning “midnight”- a traditional sandwich of pork, ham, cheese, pickles and mustard on sweet toasted bread eaten at any time of the day.

Flan (flahn): milk-and-egg dessert made upside down in a caramelized mold.  My aunt always has one of these waiting for me when I visit Miami.

Pudín de pan (poo-deen deh pan):  the Cuban version of bread-and-butter pudding.

Natilla (nah-tee-yah): vanilla pudding, but creamier and dusted with cinnamon.  Sometimes presented in a bowl lined with lady fingers.

Pan Cubano (pan coo-ban-oh): a very long white loaf with no nutritional value whatsover.  Often found sanwiched around palomilla (see above), tomato slices, onions and shoestring potatoes.

Puerco asado (poo-er-co ah-sad-oh) pork, often roasted whole.  With more garlic mojo.

Ropa vieja (rope-ah vee-ay-ha) literally “old clothes.”  Shredded beef stew served on white rice.

Mariscos (mah-rees-cohs): seafood grilled, stewed, breaded or fried.

La Bodeguita del Medio is at 47 Kensington Court, W8 5DA.  But not for this Cuban.