You have to wonder after eating at Yuca in Miami what would have become of the great kitchens of Havana if their chefs had not given up their toques and kitchen whites for military caps and fatigues. Would traditional grilled chicken and mashed plantains (fufu) have evolved into ancho marinated chicken asada with pigeon peas asopao and Huancaina salad? Would the dining room of Havana's National Hotel be serving plantain-coated dolphin with tamarind sauce, fufu and house pickled vegetables?
Probably not. The owners of Yuca say that they transform the traditional elements of Cuban food into contemporary forms. But, in fact, chef/co-owner Douglas Rodriguez transcends Cuban cuisine altogether with his dazzling blends of the best South Florida ingredients.
Located in Coral Gables just outside Miami, Yuca looks like just another trendy, stainless steel, white-walled, wine bar/brasserie in any major metropolitan area. Contemporary lithographs, paintings and murals hang on the walls. The white tablecloth-covered tables and industrial bistro chairs fill the room, and a modern iron and marble staircase leads to the second floor dining room.
Regardless of the typecast decor, the chic attractiveness of Yuca makes it the perfect place to people watch. The table next door might be seated with wealthy Colombians living it up in Miami while at another table flashy Cuban-Americans try to impress their skinny mannequin girlfriends.
Nearly everyone at the restaurant bears the unmistakable and healthy signs of Miami's sun, but don't let that put you off. You can't go there and start counting calories or begin asking the kitchen to prepare courses. Besides, unless you have been here before, it's extremely difficult to imagine what many of the dishes taste like. Dona Gloria's traditional black bean soup with rice cakes, sour cream and green onions is easy to understand, but what about sweet-potato skins filled with bacalao (dried salt cod) à la Biscayne, and Monterey Jack cheese served with mole sour cream?
This certainly doesn't make ordering wine with your meal easy, and neither does the unimpressive wine list. It's best to stick to American, Spanish or Chilean wines. Chile's Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc, $25 a bottle, or Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, $48, should go well with just about anything on the menu, except for the meat dishes. For reds, try the 1985 Marqués de Murrietta Reserva, $35, or the Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon.
Whatever you decide to order, it would be a shame not to try the seafood dishes. The traditional corn tamale filled with conch and served with olives, tomato slices and a spicy jalapeño-queso-criolio pesto may not be traditional, but it is delicious. The moist, soft texture and sweet flavors of the corn offset the chewy fresh style of the conch while the pesto adds a bit of spice to everything. A pan-seared grouper fillet dusted with cumin and pumpkin seed with mamey orange sauce is equally good and incredibly light and crisp for a fish and fruit combination.
Anyone with room for dessert will not be disappointed with Yuca's innovative selection, but even the most ardent chocoholic might find the chocolate cake soaked in three milks, layered with Kahlua mousse and chocolate meringue and served with chocolate sorbet a little overwhelming. But it's worth the effort.
Wiser diners might go straight to the cigars and coffee, but be sure that you are seated in a smoking section. When the coffee arrived and I asked my waiter if I could smoke a cigar, he looked at me in horror. He said that I should do so in another restaurant or preferably on the street. The manager assured me otherwise, and added that they often hold special cigar smokers' dinners. They also have a humidor.
Leaving the restaurant and walking down the street smoking my cigar, I reflected on the remarkable combinations of fish, fruit and vegetables from the kitchen of Yuca. Cuisine in Havana may never reach such heights, but it is certainly easier to smoke a cigar there.