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Bites of heaven by way of Havana

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2014-02-15 10:28

Bites of heaven by way of Havana

Roast pork and smoked ham make Cuban sandwiches hearty and filling at Caribeno restaurant in Beijing. Mike Peters / China Daily

I have a pash for Cuban food. Some of my Cuban friends (yes, Americans have Cuban friends) joke that it reflects my guilt over the Bay of Pigs and the now - pathetic US embargo of that lively tropical island.

But even a lifelong Catholic like me can separate atonement and lunch. Black beans are my scene. A lime that gets a timely squeeze is sublime. Anyone who can fry plantains so they are as crisp as they are tender doesn't need a political context - or a plum-and-sky-blue 1959 roadster - to impress me.

I just love Cuba on my plate.

So I was all smiles when I heard about Caribeno's recent opening, especially when I learned that Osmani Castillo was the executive chef. Castillo was previously last seen whipping up ropa viejo (literally "old clothes") at the late and much-missed Casa Latina - where the food was more Mexican than Cuban. His new gig promises a menu that's pretty much Havana from A to Z.

The chef's ropa viejo is a pile of shredded beef cooked with bell peppers, onions, rosemary and coriander in a sweet red wine and tomato sauce. The result is nice and complex - this is a dish that the green bell pepper can overwhelm in less experienced hands, but Castillo never lets that happen, and all of the other savories get a chance to shine through, too. The Caribeno kitchen serves this with sides of Cuban rice, smashed green plantains and avocado - a feast at dinner for just 78 yuan ($12.87).

Ingredients aren't always from the mother island - the beefsteak comes from Argentina, the cod is curiously Portuguese, the chicken and pork are locally sourced - but the style is Cuban all the way. Aljibe chicken is a classic roasted bird that's piquant with a citrus marinade, garlic and black pepper. The pork chop entree is well-seasoned with garlic, lemon, cumin and fresh black pepper before it's flash-fried crispy on the outside and succulent inside, served with Cuban rice, lightly fried yucca and mojo sauce. Pork steak, meanwhile, comes with a delicate soft tamale and some salad.

More exotic is the "coffee lobster", which the menu describes as a "casualty of coffee and lobster from Cuba". Since this has to be ordered a day ahead, we didn't have the chance to try it on our two spontaneous visits to the restaurant, but the image of a colliding bean and crustacean is so compelling we'll have to plan a return visit. (The menu photo shows a big lobster emerging triumphant from a crowded platter, flanked by a bottle of Chilean white wine that's part of the 698 yuan special.)

A less pricey lobster (188 yuan), which you can order on the spot, is served in a Creole red sauce and served with white rice, toasted bread and lemon.

For dessert we couldn't resist "Grandma flan", a traditional creamy vanilla custard that tick-les our taste buds even in memory, and a more hipster mojito cheesecake loaded with rum, pineapple and coconut. Also available: arroz con leche, an authentic confection of rice, raisins, butter and milk, and a fresh fruit platter.

If delicious Cuban food isn't enough to soothe your Latin spirit, make a point of coming on a Saturday or Tuesday evening, when the everyday salsa music is bolstered by dance demonstrations followed by a chance to shake a leg (or something else) on the central dance floor.

If you go

Caribeno 11:30 am–9:30 pm. 1/F South Tower, China Overseas Plaza, 8 Guanghuadong Li (Lane), Chaoyang district, Beijing. 01059772789.

Average price per person: 200 yuan ($33).

Recommended: Pork Steak,Ropa Viejo, Aljibe Chicken, Grandma Flan.

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