Approximately three years ago, there were three really great Cuban restaurants in Minneapolis: Victor's 1959 Cafe, Babalu, and Cafe Havana*. You can probably guess by my hyperlinking that two of these restaurants have now closed. It's a shame, because Babalu and Cafe Havana were both located on Washington Avenue North--and my loft is in between the two.
I love Cuban cuisine. When I was seventeen ("it was a very good year!") I had the opportunity to be a Production Assistant on a documentary film called Puente de Almas (Bridge of Souls) about a Cuban family that fled to America during Castro's takeover. During the two-week-long shoot, I was exposed to Cuban culture for the first time, and in the best possible way: dinners lasted for hours and were accompanied by family members improvising on the guitar and whatever percussion instruments could be found. I immediately fell in love with plantains. Well, I loved all the food, but especially the plantains.
You can imagine my disappointment when, shortly after I moved into my loft in June of 2008, I heard that Babalu was closing--and then a few months later, Cafe Havana did as well. While Cafe Havana's location remained empty for over a year, it was quickly reported that an Italian restaurant was going into Babalu's old space. I was so disappointed--I had just moved into this chic, bohemian neighborhood with unique restaurants and shops--and some crappy Olive Garden knockoff was going in. The restaurant's name came out--and I was even further dismayed: "the fat" in italian? Really? I was sure it would be a flop. But soon the flag for Bar La Grassa was hanging at 800 Washington Avenue North, and immediately the reviews began pouring in. "Divine". "A fantasy". It was called the Best New Restaurant by virtually every local media outlet. I was fascinated.
On a Friday night in January, my main squeeze and I walked down the block to check it out. As luck would have it, two spots had just opened up at the bar facing the kitchen (reservations are otherwise pretty much mandatory, but this section is first-come-first-served). Not knowing what to expect, we asked the bartender to bring us two of her favorite appetizers. What happened next changed my life. I am not exaggerating. She brought out their Bruschetta with Soft Egg and Lobster (thank you times a million to the genius at Star Tribune who was able to get that recipe!). I had never tasted something so exquisite in my life (yes, exquisite is a crazy, highfalutin word that I will only ever use to describe this dish, I promise). Before I swallowed the first bite, I'd forgotten what a plantain even looked like.
The rest of our meal was just as magical. One of the great qualities of my boyfriend is that he pushes me outside my comfort zone with food. We split two entrees that evening--each amazing, neither a dish I would have ordered alone. The first was Orecchiette with Braised Rabbit. Yes, rabbit. I ate bunnies. And they were fantastic. The second dish was Chiattara Nera with Ink Braised Squid: you may be right in suspecting that there is actual squid ink in this pasta! It was virtually black, spaghetti-like noodles (chiattara means "guitar" in italian, the noodles are like the strings of a guitar) with pieces of calamari in a slightly spicy, creamy sauce. Tragically, this dish has been taken off the menu. Before we left the restaurant, drunk on the experience and several glasses of wine, we promised each other to never visit this place without the other--it was that good, we would only make the other person jealous.
Months went by, and word got out that something was going into the former home of Cafe Havana. In May, Haute Dish opened. I had high hopes, hearing that the concept was comfort food made fancy. One evening, my boyfriend and a friend were headed to a Twins game and invited me to join them here for dinner before the game. With the philosophy that, "if they have it on the menu, it probably kicks ass" regarding Macaroni and Cheese, that's what I ordered. It was prepared with taleggio cheese and delicious chunks of king crab. I offered bites to the table, and was informed that "This tastes like Bar La Grassa!" (in case you didn't know, that's about the highest compliment a dish can get).
So, I learned that sometimes change is good. The best Cuban restaurant in town is still standing, and where others once were now stand two excellent new additions to my neighborhood. Have you eaten at Bar La Grassa or Haute Dish? Did you enjoy them as much as I did?
*some people consider El Meson to be Cuban, but seeing as they refer to themselves as "Spanish-Caribbean", I do not.