Restaurant Review: Dolce Cubano, Stamford
★★ [Very Good]
The first time I dined at Dolce Cubano was on a rainy Tuesday night. We got lost en route (Stamford south of I-95 is a maddening maze) so we were late. We were also hungry for more than a bite. Suddenly, there on the waterfront ablaze with light like a cruise ship celebrating Mardi Gras, was our harbor of refuge. The kitchen was closing in 20 minutes, but not to worry “as long as you get your order in.” They even found us a seat beside a curving glass wall of floor-to-ceiling windows with a breathtaking wide-angle waterfront view.
Inside, Dolce Cubano was a glittering playhouse with mirrors and candlelight, LED light, fake firelight, walls at all angles, a bar that goes on forever, an Italian film flickering on a larger-than-life movie screen.
How lovely it would all be on a soft summer night. We vowed to return and did, this time on a Thursday night. The restaurant was packed. A window seat? Was I kidding? “As far as possible from the bar,” I shouted, because this place was loud. Most hip restaurants are, but this was sonic. A gorgeous female waitperson mimed that she understood and seated the four of us at a table for two next to the bar. Getting in and out was an acrobatic feat and finding room on the table for small plates, large plates, bread, olive oil—never mind, you get the picture.
Because we couldn’t hear one another and none of us could hear our waitress, who appeared mostly to announce that she would be right back, my friends begged me to order for all four of us, which I did. Things began to look up.
Havana Buffalo Wings, big, meaty, juicy things baked in spicy white wine sauce and served with sweet plantain, were to die for. Shrimp ceviche in a citrus-and-mango marinade, was as refreshing as a sea breeze. Havana bruschetta arrived heaped with some of the best pulled pork I’ve ever tasted. Grilled oysters, fresh Blue Points grilled with tequila and sage butter and strewn with tiny sweet kernels of corn, were insanely delicious. Oh, Dolce, Dolce, all is forgiven.
With a few exceptions, the entrées we tried (the menu calls them Classic Dishes) were as good as what went before. And ropa vieja blew me away. The name actually means “old clothes” and there are many variations from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. Dolce Cubano’s version proved to be an authentic ropa vieja Cubana. Made with shredded Black Angus skirt steak sauced with tomato, onion and peppers, it was wildly flavorful. Departing from tradition, it was also pretty, arranged on a flat plate with white rice and black beans, like a colorful striped flag.
Havana roast pork, Cuba’s beloved lechon asada, is one of those dishes for which every family seems to have a treasured recipe. Some call for sour orange juice, some call for vinegar, Dolce Cubano uses white wine. All call for slow-cooking at a very low temperature for a very long time—until the meat is so fork-tender it tempts hazarding a cliché, as my friend Ed did: “It melts in your mouth.”
Wild Caught Sea Bass did not. A huge portion, snow-white when cut into, it was a little too firm (undercooked, perhaps) and curiously bland in the mouth. The dab of chipotle mango salsa served with the fish helped a little but not enough. Barbara politely left most of hers on the plate.
Things got back on track with scallops and jumbo shrimp gently sautéed in a delicious spicy white wine sauce. Accompanied by saffron rice and spinach, it was a beautifully balanced small plate that would have been right at home anywhere along the Mediterranean coast.
We were concentrating on the typically Cuban specialties here, but there are a number of Italian dishes on the menu, too—pasta pugliese, penne alla vodka—as well as a classic Spanish paella and a New York strip steak—and why not? There was a time when the sugar industry brought many Americans to pre-Castro Cuba and Havana was called the Paris of the West because it was so European.
For dessert, Spanish churros, more cookielike than the usual puffy fried dough, were designed for dipping in a cup of chocolate sauce. Italian cannoli became finger food, too, with the pastry cones presented unfilled, poking out of a pile of cream-filling on the plate. Sponge cake layered with limoncello and chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream were pleasant but unremarkable. Go for the cannoli.
Dolce Cubano is visually stunning and some of the food nudges three stars but the service we received—or rather, did not receive, on our second visit was too off-putting to be ignored. An entrée was forgotten, the wrong wine was poured, we had to wait 45 minutes for dessert. Our waitress was obsessively friendly but her MO turned out to be “Promise them anything, but forget it.”
The thing is, nobody else seemed to mind. The crowd, young mod moguls of high finance escaping the jungle of skyscrapers a few blocks away, were ready to roar. The word on the street is that Thursday is the new Friday. Caveat emptor.
78 Southfield Ave., Stamford, 203/817-0700, dolcecubano.com
Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 4, brunch Sunday 11:30 to 4. Dinner Monday through Thursday and Sunday 4 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: Appetizers and small plates $6.50 to $18.50, entrées and larger plates $15.50 to $32.50, desserts $6.50 to $8.50.