Halibut Ceviche with Mango, Black Beans, Onions, Peppers, and Cilantro; Grilled Shrimp with Cilantro-Lime Sauce over Rice; Plantain-Crusted Halibut with Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa and Cuban Rice
Occupation: Behavior Specialist for the Orinda, Moraga, and Walnut Creek School Districts
Location: Pleasant Hill
Favorite Restaurant: Havana
Reviewed Havana: Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Havana is a restaurant inspired by 1950’s Cuba in food, drinks, and décor. The art deco feel transports you to a little restaurant in Cuba. Found down a small side street in Walnut Creek, Havana is an inviting restaurant for those looking for a fun and unique dining experience. Upon arrival, we were offered a choice of sitting at the “conversation bar” (one long table that runs down the center of the restaurant where many diners gather to eat) or at one of the small tables that fill in the perimeter of the restaurant. We opted to wait for a table, so we went to the full bar that Havana offers. Many patrons enjoy the bar, because seating, even with a reservation, can take some time. On my visit, what was supposed to be a fifteen-minute wait, turned into half an hour. Havana has such a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere that its patrons are inclined to linger like they would in Cuba.
While at the bar, we ordered from their list of over ten different mojitos. We ordered the traditional mojito made with lime, mint, rum, and sugar. Havana makes the perfect mojito — not to sweet and not too sour — just the perfect balance of refreshment that makes you feel like it’s a summer day even in the middle of winter. While we sipped our drinks, we couldn’t help but notice the surroundings. On the walls are photos of vintage cars, and Cuban music plays overhead, if you can hear it over the hum of the patrons. Havana’s diners are a diverse crowd, as well. On the night we were there, we saw families with small children, older couples out with friends, first dates, and a group of women celebrating a “girl’s night out.” Havana’s menu is as diverse as its clientele. Depending on your appetite, one could make a meal out of a few tapas or have a three-course meal. Havana is known for appetizers, like their crispy crab cakes and grilled shrimp over lime rice.
On this visit, we branched out and tried something different. The halibut ceviche was a delicious start to our meal. The delicate fish was marinated in citrus with strong notes of pineapple and then mixed with onions, black beans, and peppers. This was presented in a martini glass surrounded by crisp plantains. Almost all of Havana’s entrées are sure to please, whether it is the garlic-studded pork, the ropa veja (tender meat in a tomato sauce), or chicken adobo. On this visit, I ordered the plantain-crusted halibut served with a tomatillo-avocado salsa and Cuban rice. I have had this entrée before and was looking forward to it, but was slightly disappointed by the fact that the fish was a bit over-cooked. However, the fish was crisp on the outside and quite flavorful. My companion had the bistec with pineapple salsa, rice, and black beans. The meat was wonderfully tender and flavorful. Normally after a meal like this we would stop, but on this night we decided to try dessert. We were delightfully surprised by the flan that we ordered. It was creamy with a strong caramel flavor and hints of cinnamon. The perfect end to a great meal!
If you are looking for a place that is a little different from your average night out that also has great food, generous portions, and a fun atmosphere, then I would highly recommend Havana in downtown Walnut Creek. It is the perfect place to eat and linger over cocktails with friends in a casual environment or the perfect place start your night out in Walnut Creek!
Occupation: Disc Jockey–DJ The Maestro
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: The House
Reviewed Havana: Saturday, January 7, 2006
My first impression of Havana was not good. I called to make reservations for three people at 6:30 p.m. They said reservations weren’t required and we would have no trouble getting a table at that time. When we arrived at 6:30 p.m. sharp, we were told there was a thirty-five minute wait. I don’t mind waiting, but I was a little surprised to find out that “no wait” actually meant “long wait.” The person who greeted us seemed flustered and bothered by our presence.
We were encouraged to wait by the bar and order drinks. The bartender was also cold and unfriendly. I wondered if being too cool and unfriendly was a requirement to work there. We ordered two mojitos and soaked in the ambiance. There was a distinct tackiness to the room. The bar was painted a loud and annoying blue. The floor looked like a garage floor. The ceiling was falling down in one spot. There was a feeble attempt to give the place an island feel by placing tired tree leaves above columns. I felt like I was at a cheap tropical theme party in someone’s basement.
I went to the restroom and there is a photograph of a guy photographing you as you went to the bathroom. I guess it was supposed to be funny, but it came across merely as creepy.
When I went back to the bar, my friends and I tried their classic mojito and their melon mojito. I have only tried maybe six different mojitos in my life, but this was definitely the worst. It tasted like something even Kool-Aid would reject. It didn’t taste minty at all and seemed sickly sweet. My friends were definitely disappointed they had paid $14 for two bad drinks.
They sat us down in exactly thirty-five minutes in a comfy booth that was upholstered in what my friend Steve described as “early 70s Holiday Inn.” Our experience definitely began to improve when our waitperson Veronica came into the picture. She was bright, friendly and incredibly helpful. This place was very lucky to have a quality person like her working for them.
We took Veronica’s suggestions and ordered the crab cakes and the shrimp appetizers. We also split a bowl of mango gazpacho soup. The crab cakes were some of the best I’ve had and the shrimp were nicely barbecued and came with a delicious sauce. We were starting to feel much better about Havana until the gazpacho soup arrived. It was merely acidic and sweet, and no one wanted to finish it.
Our entrées looked promising at first glance. Liz had plantain encrusted mahi mahi fish. Steve had garlic-studded pork and I had shredded beef with peppers. The shredded beef dish was great. It was moist and zesty and worked well with the black beans. The entrée trouble began when I took a bite of Liz’s mahi mahi. I bit into a disgusting burst of salt; Liz thought her entéee was pretty good, but she likes very salty food. Things got worse when I tried Steve’s pork dish. The smoky pork was all right, but the sweet and garlic coating just confused my tongue. Both Steve and I felt like it was a dish that couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be. They should have called it “split personality pork.”
We were trying to give the place a chance, so we ordered two kinds of plantains. The results were mixed. The twice-fried plantains were overly dry and dull as can be. The plantains maduros in a vinegar sauce were far better. It was actually a tasty and elegant little dish.
In one last effort to redeem this recommended restaurant we finished with the toffee caramel flan. This was a good flan. I am usually bored by flan, but it was perfectly sweet and delicious.
Havana definitely had a lively social feel and was a great place for people watching. I got the feeling that this was a place where people came to work on their one-night stand skills. After a pitcher of bad mojitos anything could happen. All in all, there is no way I could recommend Havana to others. It has some good points, but too many bad ones. If you had to go there and you ordered the crab cakes, shredded beef, flan, and had Veronica as your server you might find it a very good restaurant, but since the Bay Area has so many better and more consistent restaurants, why bother?
Occupation: Web Director/Writer
Favorite Restaurant: El Huarache Azteca
Reviewed Havana:Saturday, January 7, 2006
Havana offers a suburban California re-creation of a concept of Cuban food. It’s light and fun and experimental with ingredients but with mixed results. In the end, what you get may be Cuban or it may be Cuban-inspired, and a word to the wise: stick to the Cuban as much as possible.
The Cuban national dish, if such were to exist, would surely be Ropa Vieja, and Havana’s version is outstanding. The meat is well stewed and served with “moros and cristianos” — Moors and Christians, better known as black beans and rice. Similar success can be found in the Chicken Adobo, cooked so well that the meat falls off the bone. I shared paella with our group, and while it was a fairly classic rendition with no out-of-place ingredients, it was a little too wet for me. The saffrony red-pepper broth was a little too dominating. More like paella soup. I would have preferred a drier version of paella. While Cuban food is not known for exceptionally strong or hot flavors, I was yearning for more kick in the halibut ceviche.
Before going to Havana, I checked out its web site and was really looking forward to trying the guava cheesecake. When I asked for it at the end of our meal, I was disappointed to learn it was no longer offered (”we stopped selling it about a year ago”). Instead, we ordered the flan and the chocolate mousse. Both were very good. The flan was the only dish that we tasted that was both experimental AND good. In fact, it bewitched us with its mystery, which we theorized was due to vanilla bean. The mousse was presented in a generous scoop on a plate. Each dessert was dressed with a few slices of strawberries. I would have loved to see even more berries adorning each dish.
The mojitos were the biggest revelation to me. This now-cliche cocktail has not worn out its welcome at Havana, and rightly so. The restaurant offers fifteen — count ‘em, fifteen! — twists on the rum-based drink. Variations included different fruits, types of rum, and even a tequila version. This is definitely California. When I got home I looked up “10 Cane Rum” on the Web and learned that this particular “luxury” rum is derived from the first pressing of virgin sugar cane, not molasses — also described as “rum’s redemption.” This pretty much confirmed what the waiter told us about this rum. Although I’m not a hard-liquor aficionado, this rum is both richer tasting and more complex than any rum I have ever tasted. It’s almost a sin to mix it in mojito, but I am not complaining!
I would go back to this Havana, even if it’s not quite the real thing.