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The allure of Havana '59 makes it a great place to see and be seen on unhurried nights. 

A Sense of Place

Havana '59
16 N. 17th St.
5:50-11 p.m. daily, Sunday brunch
649-2822

Throw open the garage doors fronting the Farmer's Market, let the street sounds and the city air in, and there's no other place quite like Havana '59.

The exotic allure of Havana is unrelenting, luring diners in droves. I suspect few of them leave disappointed by their experience because the experience here is more than the food.

A walking tobacco stand — a slip of a girl in a slip of a red dress and startlingly high heels — works the aisles and the bar selling cigarettes and cigars. Bare light bulbs dance in the rafters. Music blares. A vendor sells flowers. Each table has a deck of playing cards and patrons put them to use. But for those who want a restaurant to give them a bit more than a sense of place, who fret about value and are picky about service, Havana might not be your kind of place.

First, let me tell you about the salads. There is an alarming trend in which restaurants pass off a mountain of greens as salad. Havana's salads are presented on huge, pasta-size bowl- plates that brim with greenery. My Caesar was dressed with a simple vinaigrette, although I could detect no salty bite of anchovy or the texture of egg. The croutons were teeny, more like bread crumbs. The coarsely shredded Parmesan was dusky, of nice quality and was liberally applied.

My partner's mixed greens were simply that, tossed with a bit of orange balsamic vinaigrette. Neither dressing was impressive. And, we bemoaned, why doesn't anyone throw in a few nice tomatoes, mushroom slices, julienne of zucchini, anything but lettuce, anymore? When did a salad just become a lot of lettuce at $6 a plate?

The salads had arrived before we were halfway through the appetizers. The first course had arrived lightning fast, before we'd taken more than two sips from our cocktails. Our waitress did notice and offered to return the greenery to the back, but by then, we had already made room and made quick work of garlic shrimp in an orange mojo ($10) and pork tenderloin morsels ($9).

The shrimp — five in number and chilly even though we could see the kitchen staging area from our table — were large but pricey. Had they not been a touch tough we would be more forgiving. The orangey glaze was fragrant and pleasant, a light addition to seafood.

We adored the plump pork morsels, which were melt-in-your-mouth tender and made better with a cilantro dipping sauce. We could have eaten dozens of these but were treated to only eight bites.

The waitress kept an eye on us and refilled drinks and cleared the empty plates fast. But then we waited a good 20 minutes for our main dishes. This delay was irritating after the too-fast delivery of the earlier stages. Pacing matters.

My partner's paella ($20) — a huge portion on the signature huge plate — was a savory rendition of the traditional rice dish and was nicely presented. Along with the customary tomatoes and peas, the rice delivered meaty surprises — tender fish and chicken bits, scallops, and slivers of chorizo sausage — with nearly every forkful. A slice of sweet fried plantain topped the plate, along with moist and tender mussels, shrimp and dainty clams.

I had chosen the filet mignon ($20). It was absolutely gorgeous, with the glazed meat presented atop a mash of lobster and boniato, the Cuban sweet potato. The dish was presented in a demiglace of hoisin sauce and portabella mushrooms. The flavors of the earthy steak with its smoky, robust mushroom sauce worked well with the elegantly earthy potato melange.

The filet was an excellent cut. I had, however, ordered my steak medium and it came to the table bloody. I waited while they made it right.

Our waitress was quick with the coffee and desserts — both of which we delighted in. The chocolate hazelnut torte ($6) was a lush, dense chocolate pie topped with a whipped cream dollop and a sprig of mint. The guava-lime cheesecake ($6) was creamy and subtle and enhanced by a raspberry coulis.

The night of our visit, Havana was full with reservations. The garage doors were open and when the clouds burst and the rain sprayed in, the glass doors came down with a slam. We sat with another cup of coffee — perhaps the finest after-dinner coffee in all of Richmond — and played another hand of cards. It's quite a place when you're unhurried and
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