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Hot, Hot Habana

The drinks are fine and the atmosphere sublime, but chef Miguel Quinterro's Latin-fused cuisine is the star of this show.


Since opening nearly five years ago to splashy reviews, Habana has come to be known as the epicenter of the Caribbean-style party scene in Orange County.

It's a reputation well earned. Slick-looking suburban hipsters flock here for the steamy salsa music and Saturday night flamenco dancers while sipping sophisticated drinks such as lemon drop martinis and Bacardi mojitos in the flickering indoor candlelight, or while leisurely puffing fine Cohibas outside in a spacious, tree-lined patio.

The drinks are fine and the cigars and Latin music sublime, but its kitchen is the best reason to come to Habana.

Chef Miguel Quinterro brings an excellence and consistency to Habana's Latin-fused cuisine, and this more than makes up for what was lacking during the restaurant's early years, despite the initial positive buzz.

Habana's growing pains were evident. During the restaurant's first two years, my co-workers and I dined there two to three times a month. Many of the dishes were fine, but too many were uninspired or poorly prepared. It was obvious that the kitchen had yet to find its stride, and dining there was a hit-or-miss proposition.

But all that's changed, and Quinterro is establishing Habana's reputation by experimenting with Latin flavors in fun ways while staying true to its Cuban roots.

While there are the classic Cuban pork dishes, Habana really shines with its seafood. Among the appetizers are a salsa-topped ahi tuna on tostones, a rock shrimp ceviche brought to life with a Scotch bonnet chile sauce and calamari with breading so light and crisp it seems like tempura.

Your best bet, though, is Manila clams served in a rich, salty sofrito broth. (Sofrito is a mix of sweet onions, green and red peppers and spices.) The meaty, savory clams are a fine foil, and you'll be spooning up the broth long after they're gone.

The seafood entrees feature a large slice of grilled Atlantic salmon and an in-house smoked sea bass. The salmon comes with a festive topping of red tomatoes and green onions in a creamy Creole-style sauce. It's a creative way to serve salmon, but it seems pedestrian compared with the sea bass, which is wrapped in a cornhusk with garlic, leeks and achiote and cooked in Habana's smoker. The result is a dish so aromatic you can smell it as it comes to your table. The sea bass is tender and infused with a light smoky flavor that blends well with the red peppers, papaya and shrimp sauce that tops it. If Habana has a signature dish, this is it.

At its heart, though, Habana is a Cuban restaurant, and I find it hard to pass up the appetizer empanadas and bocaditos. The pillowy empanadas come with either chicken or vegetables and zesty habanero ketchup. The bocaditos, which look like small dinner rolls, are stuffed with a tasty combination of seasoned ground beef, capers, olives, tomatoes and raisins.

And, yes, there are pork dishes galore--Habana's best one is the ropa vieja. The dish, whose name means "old clothes," is a pot roast with shredded pork simmered in peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes. So strong is the tomato flavor, the pork reminded me of the sloppy joes (this is not a bad thing, by the way).


Another Cuban-inspired dish worth ordering is the chicken breast coated in a plantain crust. The crust's flavor does not overwhelm the chicken, as you might suspect it would, and accompanying it are some of the smoothest and most buttery mashed potatoes you'll ever eat.

Not everything shines at Habana, though. The tamale pie is a bland slice of cornmeal heavy with a red chile powder flavor. This dish is better left for Little League potlucks. Also disappointing are the tamales de verduras. Here, vegetable tamales are steamed in a banana leaf and served buried beneath mixed greens and crispy leeks. Experience in archeology is needed to dig through to the tamales, made with a tasty sweet masa, but the rest of this dish is mostly inedible.

What impresses me about Habana these days is Quinterro's attention to the little things. The daily soup choice is always a treat--thumbs-up to a creamy fire-roasted tomato soup with a touch of oregano I had recently. And the rice and black beans, staples of Latin cuisine, are excellent. The butter-rich white rice is as good as I've ever eaten, and the black beans have the added flavor of sofrito.

With its dark, wooden interior lit by hundreds of candles, Habana creates a sultry dining environment that encourages you to stay late into the evening and enjoy a cocktail or two. And the drinks here are superb. Red and white sangria are each served out of traditional clear-glass bowls filled with sliced fruit. The later the evening goes, the fruitier the sangria becomes.

The most popular cocktail, the lemon drop martini, made with Absolut Citron, fresh lemon juice and Triple Sec, arrives in a sugar-rimmed glass. On any weekend night, it's normal to see nearly half of the bar patrons enjoying this sweet drink.

Like the restaurant nightclubs in Cuba that inspire it, Habana seems to have found the perfect balance between fine food and good drink.


Habana, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. (714) 556-0176. Open: Lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner daily starting at 5 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner appetizers: $5.95 to $10.95. Dinner entrees: $12.95 to $31.90. (The $31.90 price is for paella which serves two.)

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