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Cuba Libre 

uthentic flavors saturate new restaurant

A Charlotte physician, a Cuban native, told me that the "colorful language" he overheard in a restaurant's kitchen was Cuban. He then surmised that if the employees' expletives were authentic, the restaurant's food would probably be authentic as well. This turned out to be great advice. Cuban native Marcelino Fernandez opened the 92-seat Siboney Cuban Restaurant last September. Siboney, or Ciboney in English, was the name of Cuba's native Indian tribe, related to the Arawak Indians, which inhabited that Caribbean island when Christopher Columbus arrived from Europe in 1492.

"I named my restaurant Siboney because we wanted to be authentic in everything. The 'Siboney' are the original tribe of Cuba," remarked Fernandez.

Leave Charlotte's crisp autumn air behind you, and enter the atmospheric, semi-tropical world Fernandez has created. Small palm trees and the sounds of Tito Puente greet you as you enter. In keeping with the authenticity of the Cuban dining experience, Fernandez designed the interior to resemble a private home's courtyard. Since Castro, two kinds of restaurants exist in Cuba. One is the state-operated; the other is the paladar, a 12-seat restaurant operating in a private home.

Stated Fernandez, "We tried to give to the people what they would find in one of our houses in Cuba. When we have festivities, we have the dinner on the patio, like the one we made here." The main dining room is divided by an "exterior" stucco wall complete with glassed arched windows, a sloping roof line, lanterns, and potted plants. The only interruption in the patio illusion are the obtrusive car headlights which shine into the dining room from the parking lot.

So turn your back to those lights and bury your nose in the mint garnish of Siboney's effervescent mojito to find the level of experience owner Fernandez wants you to have. Mojito is a popular Cuban rum and lime drink. "We buy a lot of things from Florida," noted Fernandez. "If you want a real mojito, you must have yerbabuena, a variety of mint, and a sugar stick to garnish."

You can sip a mojito, or two, while reading through the volume of evening offerings. If black bean soup is the extent of your Cuban food knowledge, just remember that Cuba's cuisine is a combination of the cultures which live there. The Siboney used native corn, peanuts, peppers and yucca; enslaved Africans brought plantains; and the Spanish added meat to the mix. Since Cuba is an island, seafood was a no-brainer add on.

If you can't decide on an appetizer, order the "Combo Siboney" for $12.95. Although the selection changes nightly, you might expect to find an expertly crafted Cuban-styled empanada; several ham and chicken croquettes to dip into the pungent aioli; slices of marinated hearts of palm; fried yucca fingers; papa rellanas, a crispy fried mashed potato ball with a ground beef center; fried calamari; and several jicaras rellenas, which are slices of green plantains molded into bite-sized cups and filled with savory beef or shrimp mixtures. Another appetizer, the black bean soup, beats expectations. Of course, you could stop there, but better dishes loom on the horizon. This may also be the time to switch from Cuban rum drinks to beer; their list includes Hatuey, or wine. A short wine list is available as well.

Since pork is the dish most associated with Cuba, we had a go with the Pierna Asada, which is generous slices of roasted leg of pork, a cut which has the tendency to be drier than a loin. It was here as well. Accompanying the pork was a serving of black beans mixed with white rice, a dish known as moros y cristianos, or the moors and the Christians, a Spanish history lesson. An even better dish was the Cuban snapper, which soaked up all the flavor of a well-balanced Creole-style sauce, and was accompanied by sauteed slices of luxuriant sweet maduros and simple white rice. Yum.

Don't forgo dessert. The creamy flan is spiffed up with a trail of freshly whipped cream. The cup of majarete, a cornmeal pudding scented with island cinnamon, has more substance than pudding and vaguely hints of a honey-soaked semolina cake. If the dessert tray doesn't tempt you, head for the bar, which has a humidor filled with cigars from, well, the Caribbean area, with several brands from the Dominican Republic.

At lunch, Siboney offers several Cuban sandwiches with an authentic Cuban-styled bread from local Suarez bakery. Many of the appetizers and entrees from the dinner menu are offered at lunch, but served in smaller portions and prices. Sandwiches and entrees at lunch range from $5.95 to $9.95. Dinner entree prices range from $11.95 for the half-roasted chicken to $23.95 for the lobster tail enchilado.

Some have said Cuban cuisine stopped its evolutionary path when Castro rose to power and that invention went the way of Mambo days and Mafia kings. Time has stood still at Siboney. Entrees are plated in the old-fashioned ten, two, and six position, with the food elements moved to the sides. Current style dictates a presentation was the main element in the center of the plate.

The food at Siboney is the product of Elsie Fernandez, wife of Fernandez, who noted, "She does not want to be called a chef." Originally, the couple went to Miami in hopes of obtaining a chef. "Our first priority was to be authentic," Fernandez said of their trip, "but one chef asked for too much money and another wanted to do things his way. We wanted everything to be authentic, the way we want it. Our recipes are coming from our generation (before the revolution) with a menu which has different tastes from the many regions in Cuba. It is a small island, but there are different ways to cook."

Service is exceptional, which isn't surprising when one learns that Fernandez worked in Villa Antonio for 11 years, the last eight as maitre d'. Servers don short-sleeved white camp shirts, and all I encountered were well versed in the menu.

Fernandez, who originally trained as a mechanical designer, left Cuba after being imprisoned for 12 years for "political reasons." He told me, "Owning a restaurant is a dream you have since you come here. You heard that this is the land of dreams. Our family works hard and sticks together in order for the dream to come true."

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