Joe and I are brunch eaters. I’ve come to believe that brunch is the best of all possible meals. First of all, it’s the meal of leisure: you don’t eat brunch on work days, you eat it on the weekends, after sleeping in. You eat brunch with your sweetie after a relaxing morning, or with a group of friends. You take out-of-town guests to brunch. It’s fun. Second, there’s the meal itself: It’s breakfast! It’s lunch! Technically it’s both, but really it’s about being able to decide which meal you want after sleeping late enough that you really ought to be eating lunch. And unlike breakfast and lunch, brunch comes with delicious cocktails. And coffee. The dishes, too, tend to be more creative at brunch: restaurants try to outdo one another with unusual meals that draw crowds.
Brunch, in other words, is awesome. Any restaurant that can do it justice (and so many do not) is one I will frequent.
We’d heard good things about the Tropical Brunch at Cuba Libre in Old City, but it wasn’t until last week that we finally made it over there. I’m almost reluctant to write about it, because we didn’t have to wait for a table, and if I tell you how good it is you might all start going and then I’ll have to wait in line. But- sigh- I’m a food blogger, and that’s my job, so I’ll let you in on my secret: Cuba Libre’s brunch is amazing. It’s been a week and I’m still salivating at the memory.
The restaurant’s main dining room is built to resemble the patio of a Cuban villa, with tile floors and an upper level with traditional architecture and plants hanging down. In warm weather, the outer doors open onto sidewalk seating. The black-clad waitstaff darts back and forth from their sections to a small coffee bar built into a nook underneath the stairs.
Drinks are all themed, and would be a little gimmicky if they weren’t so good. Joe had a Cafe Cuba Libre, a large cup of Cuban coffee flavored with coconut milk. It was rich and sweet enough not to need sugar (which Joe normally adds). I had a pomegranate champagne mojito, which was strong, sweet and served with lots of properly muddled mint. Yum. The serving was generous enough that I had a hard time finishing mine.
Joe ordered the Torrejas, described thusly: “hazelnut and almond encrusted French toast stuffed with Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese, aromatic honey drizzle.” It’s a huge dish, beautifully presented covered in crushed nuts, honey and powdered sugar. The inner Mascarpone filling is incredibly rich. The pleasant surprise here was that it was not, as you might expect, overwhelmingly sweet. In fact, the filling and bread were very subtle, and most of the sweetness came from the drizzle and powdered sugar on the outside.
I ordered the Duck Frita Salad, and I swear to you, a week later I can still taste every bite. I’m not normally a big salad person, but this just floored me. Here’s the official description: “Warm braised duck leg meat shredded and crisped, garlic mojo, mixed greens, hearts of palm, banana chips and a poached egg, orange-saffron vinaigrette.” Yeah, I know, and it tastes even better. The duck meat was rich and crispy, with a complex flavor that contained hints of garlic, mint, anise, and possibly cumin, and the serving was generous. The greens were fresh and crispy, mostly spinach with some romaine, evenly tossed with the subtle vinaigrette. I prefer spinach in my salads and was pleasantly surprised. The poached egg added even more richness, and the hearts of palm and banana chips liberally sprinkled throughout gave the salad a wonderful crispy texture. Did I mention this dish is gluten-free? It is, like many of the dishes on the menu.
Service was mixed- we sometimes had trouble getting our server’s attention, but that was mostly because she was busily attending to the next table over, which was filled with people who hadn’t read the menu and then got surprised when their food was served exactly the way they’d ordered it and demanded changes. (I really hated customers like that when I was waiting tables.)
The brunch at Cuba Libre isn’t cheap enough for us to do it regularly– entrees average around $12– but it’s really worth the splurge. I’m looking forward to having that salad again as soon as possible.
[where: 10 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106]