A Tale of Two Havanas
Havana South has the provenance for perfection, but in a world where star chefs hold sway, lesser mortals beware.
Given the relationship to its parent restaurant in Bar Harbor where Havana has reigned supreme on Mt Desert Island for years, there were great expectations for the Portland branch along the Wharf Street restaurant strip to be a local wunderkind of Nuevo Latino cooking.
As a hangout for hipsters, the Havana South bar room is a great success. From zippy mojitos to excellent margaritas, the drinks are good enough to attract a steady stream of tourists and locals alike to the large, attractive space. That could certainly function on its own as a thoroughly urban cocktail lounge.
I’ve gone to the eatery since its early days hoping for a memorable meal to occur.
My latest experience at Havana South happened on a past Monday, a notoriously slow day of the week for restaurants. The sidewalk tables outside were filled, and a high decibel party prevailed in the front room abetted by a busy bar crowd. The main dining room, however, was virtually empty.
The Havana space is too big anyway, and in such a concisely populated city like Portland, the food better be terrific if one expects to fill such a cavernous room nightly. The dining room is also an awkward space that doesn’t make for a cozy or comforting dining experience. It needs to be full to feel right.
The wait staff has always been good and very attentive. Though, in the past, the kitchen was very uneven - often slow to get the food out. Havana South has a new chef, however, who, at least seems to be keeping pace.
We ordered drinks. The mojito was just sweet enough and the margarita had plenty of tequila and sweet-sour bite.
For a first course I chose the mushroom spring rolls. Here were four small lightly fried cylinders of unremarkable mushroom and soba noodles moistened with an aioli of caramelized onions. They were OK but not as good as I remembered.
My dinner partner had the shrimp ceviche, which was so drenched in coconut milk that the shrimp flavor was completely lost. Classic ceviche is “cooked” in a citrus base of lemon, lime or orange. And why use Maine shrimp when they’re not in season?
For my main course I had the roast chicken breast, which the menu describes as being prepared with a Peruvian marinade. What exactly might that be, I wondered? Whatever it was, the dry rub (or brine) produced a white meat that was so dark, stringy and dry that I thought I had been served an old thigh instead. The accompaniment of purple potatoes and braised kale would have been undecipherable had I not read it on the menu.
My friend had the cod, wrapped in a banana leaf and topped with an orange rum sauce. I sampled it and it was certainly better than a Mrs. Paul’s fish stick, but I found the sauce too sweet and sappy. My friend thought it was OK and finished most of it.
We persisted like troopers and ordered dessert. My dining mate's flan was good, but for my key lime pie, I needed a knife to cut through the cookie crust. The filling was way too sweet.
Latin cooking has taken hold in Portland in a big way. From the numerous taquerias to places like Sonny’s, Local 188, and Zapoteca, we have a good selection showcasing various styles of the cuisine. There’s room for Havana South to be a leader in the group, and I'm still waiting for that day to arrive.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.