An evening at Cubacan, on the Asbury Park boardwalk, can refresh you like a brief Caribbean vacation, minus the airport body scan.
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Cubacan, the suave, lively, Cuban/Latin restaurant on the Asbury Park boardwalk, was luckier than many others when Sandy struck, yet it still needed 3½ months to rebound from the storm’s wrath.
“The waves blew the back doors [facing the ocean] off their hinges,” said owner Joseph Cetrulo in a phone call after my visits. “When we got in there the next day, the water had receded, but all the furniture was piled up against the street side.” The building owner’s flood insurance covered much of the structural damage, Cetrulo said, but lacking flood insurance of his own, he saw no choice but to pay for interior repairs and new electrical and refrigeration systems himself.
When Cubacan reopened just before Valentine’s Day, the place looked as if it hadn’t missed a beat.
Sounded that way, too. On Friday and Saturday nights, a resounding Latin pulse again poured from the bar, encouraging couples to dance. Yet with an ad hoc sound system replacing the room-adjustable one wrecked in the storm, the hot licks invaded the 100-seat dining room as never before, making conversation difficult (although, said Cetrulo, “some people like it.”). By the time you read this, a sophisticated new system should be tamping down the spillover.
Something else was new—something you couldn’t see or hear, but perhaps could taste. From the time it opened in March 2011 until its post-Sandy revival, Cubacan had never had a Latin chef. Cetrulo, who is Italian, has mostly operated Italian restaurants—currently Sirena in Long Branch and Stella Marina in Asbury Park; previously Adagio in Summit and La Campagna in Morristown and Millburn.
Still, he and Ken Mansfield, executive chef for all his restaurants, weren’t intimidated planning Cubacan (an early Taino name for Cuba). For one thing, Italy and Spain are both Mediterranean countries. To brush up, they dined studiously at a number of Cuban and Latin restaurants, including Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia and Victor’s Cafe in Manhattan.
“We knew we’d have to do our own spin on it to make it appealing to our customers,” Cetrulo said. “I trained in Italy, but [in our Italian restaurants] we still had to bring in our own personality.”
I can’t speak of Cubacan pre-Sandy, but with the reboot, Cetrulo and Mansfield brought in chef Bradley Rodriguez to run the kitchen on a daily basis. Rodriguez, 30, who grew up in Basking Ridge and Long Branch, has a grandfather from Spain and a grandmother from Cuba. Watching them cook, he told me, inspired him to become a chef. His résumé includes stints with Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans, Nobu in New York, Smiling Joe’s in Puerto Rico and Trap Rock, Due Terre, and most recently, the Publick House in New Jersey.
His food doesn’t necessarily aim for authenticity, but it captures the Latin sizzle I’ve experienced on recent trips to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Mexico. Marlin taquitos, for example, filled four crunchy shells with a lively melange of marinated and applewood-smoked marlin, crisp lettuce, nutty malanga root crisps and sharp piquillo peppers. Another appealing twist on a classic was salmon ceviche cured mainly in rum and salt (adding lime juice near the end), the liquor teasing out an unexpected sweetness in the fish. Pulpo a la plancha begins with octopus braised in red wine and spices, then marinated in olive oil, garlic and lime juice before receiving a pleasing char on the griddle-like iron plancha. Given all that prep, the meat, though tender, was disappointingly mild. The dish got its zest from the chorizo vinaigrette on the accompanying arugula, tomato and fennel salad.
Traditional black bean soup came across as merely dutiful, lacking the brio of chorizo appetizers such as one combining the spicy-sweet sausages (their skins pop when you bite) with garlic croutons, peas, olives and a subtly sweet sherry sauce and tomato.
Among entrées, roasted red snapper best exemplified outreach, introducing an Asian accent with a sauce of coconut milk, cumin, garlic and lime. A gorgeous pork chop basted with a lip-smacking guava-chile sauce as it grilled was served with more of the sauce. It was so good we asked for extra on the side and mopped up every drop.
A perfectly grilled skirt steak, however, cried out for a traditional chimichurri sauce in which chopped parsley, oregano, garlic and peppers harmonize while retaining their identities. By adding avocado and emulsifying the sauce, Cubacan winds up with wan glop. An emulsified mojo sauce on a generous portion of seared salmon likewise muted a street-corner choir of garlic, paprika, tomato and cumin.
Traditional dishes done well included ropa vieja—a pot of shredded, braised brisket, sofrito and tomatoes; and Cuban roast pork, the large chunks braised in a traditional green mojo and served with onions, peppers, black beans and rice.
Food is served in the bar area at Cubacan, Asbury Park NJ. Photo by John Bernardo
For me, the standout entrée was the paella, one of the most enjoyable versions I’ve eaten. Aficionados prize the Spanish classic for the crispy-crackly rice layer that adheres to the bottom of the pan. I love it, too, but often the meat and seafood dry out as the dish is finished in the oven. Cubacan’s, cooked on the stove in a deeper pot, had the creamier texture of risotto—and with chicken, sausage, shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels added in increments at the end, the textures remained perfectly succulent.
For dessert, coconut flan made with coconut milk instead of regular milk (and topped with toasted coconut) took coconuttiness to the blissful max. Dessert empanadas filled with apple and cinnamon or guava and cream cheese came a close second, especially served with sweet-corn ice cream from Nasto’s in Newark. Ground arbol chilies gave espresso-chocolate pudding a gratifying heat that sneaks up on you as you swallow.
A fitting end for a meal at a stylish restaurant sure to heat up as the sun beats down this summer.
800 Ocean Avenue
ASBURY PARK, 07712
Fusion of modern Cuban cuisine and contemporary Latin ambiance on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Restaurant has a lounge that provides nightlife and entertainment. Indoor/outdoor seating available.