Havana '59 

Why a new menu at Havana '59 gives cause to linger.

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The metamorphosis was so complete and the illusion of being transported so convincing, it's a miracle the restaurant ever opened. It reeked of expense and folly, but Ripp proved that Richmonders, notorious for their aversion to change, secretly craved the crazy theatricality and extroverted fantasy that Havana dished out nightly. The tables were full, and the bar and deck were thronged with singles sipping mojitos.

The rest is history — well, almost.

Ripp no longer owns Havana, and an investment group opened the doors this summer instead. Ripp has stayed on as a consultant, and the menu has been handed over to Thor Levesque, former head chef of Buckhead's. The old menu is out, and what's left of it has been mostly compressed into a single dish — titled, aptly enough, A Taste of Old Habana — with dollops of Cuban standards like ropa vieja, picadillo and roast pork

Instead, Levesque reaches beyond traditional dishes and grabs his inspiration from the sea. Six different fish dominate the menu, and all are, remarkably enough, flown in from Hawaii by a purveyor Levesque knows personally. The result is a level of freshness and variety not seen since Limani closed its doors.

Beyond the quality of the fish is Levesque's imagination and fearless fusion of Cuban, Caribbean and Spanish flavors that smack you hard with garlic and leave you panting for more. Dishes like the Cuban bouillabaisse, chock-full of seafood bursting out of a deeply fragrant tomato-saffron broth, are shot through with corn, onion and boniato, a Cuban white sweet potato. Swordfish comes soaked with brown butter and lavished with a ferociously good combination of pungent chorizo, black beans and fresh-off-the-cob corn. Too much chili mars the less-than-crunchy calamari, but it's still tender, and the tangy papaya and chipotle aioli served with it is an interesting taste puzzle I haven't quite figured out.

The Cuban steak frites arrive perfectly cooked and crusted mahogany black, but I'd forgo the tiny yucca fries next time and use the slithery cilantro sauce as a foil for the meat. Little spring rolls stand in perfectly as a nod to Cuban sandwiches, and vibrant piquillo peppers happily drown in garlic oil with plenty of sharp Manchego to keep them company.

Missing is bread, and although the joke around the restaurant is that "Cubans don't make bread," its absence needs to be addressed. Sauces this good languish on the plate without it and wind up draining tragically into a bus pan. The service isn't perfect yet either, and seating decisions are as mysterious as they are maddening. The first time I arrived, I was seated in the gloom of the back, and I assumed it was because I didn't have a reservation. The next time, although I had a reservation and it was a strikingly lovely summer evening of blue skies and few clouds, I was told the three empty tables at the windows were "reserved." They stayed empty for more than an hour and were filled just as my dining companion and I left. Prior to that, as we were finishing, the surprised look on our server's face when we opted for another drink instead of the proffered check prompted my companion to ask jokingly if it was OK for us to stay. We were told that, in fact, this table, too, was reserved and we really couldn't stay.

Are you as shocked as I am?

Even egregious mistakes such as these can't dampen the glow of a well-prepared meal, however. A menu that hurdles the high bar set by its extravagant setting demands closer scrutiny. The surprisingly soft pineapple flan must have gone to my brain or maybe the tartness of the key lime pie blinded my judgment, because despite the fact that Havana wants to hustle me out the door, I plan on going right back in. S

Havana '59
16 N. 17th St.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m.


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