Restaurant Review: Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar

All images by Jeff Kaufman

★★ [Very Good]

With a collection of over 300 different kinds of rum—one of the largest in the country—Zafra in New Haven is Connecticut’s first rum bar. Small, dark and atmospheric, it’s on the fringe of trendy Ninth Square and on the edge of being cool. Hemingway’s Havana is long gone, but with lazily turning ceiling fans, vintage posters touting “Havana, the Paradise of the Caribbean” and a portrait of owner Dominick Splendorio’s Cuban grandfather over the bar, Zafra evokes the dreamy romance of it all.A big draw is the subtle and sometimes fanciful take on Cuban soul food whipped up by multitalented Japanese chef Tadahiro (“Haya”) Hayasaka. A Japanese chef cooking Cuban? Believe. Culinary training in Japan is notably rigorous and chefs who master it acquire knowledge and techniques (and in Haya’s case a poetic sensitivity) applicable to more than one culinary genre. In New Haven, chef Hayasaka has cooked at Japanese restaurants and sushi bars and most recently, as appetizer chef at New Haven’s four-star French brasserie, Union League Cafe. Zafra, with its bold and bright Cuban flavor profile, lush tropical fruits, exotic spices and rum drinks, exhibits yet another facet of this talented chef’s creativity.

Our meal began with a showy presentation of “Ceviche for 2.” With shrimp, scallops, avocado, tomato, red onion and cucumber heaped in three coconut shells, each adorned with narrow, ribbon-like strips of crispy tostones, it challenges description. The 4th of July on a plate?

Let’s not get carried away . . . okay, let’s. There were lots of delicious, eye-catching dishes to come. The most memorable was the most unlikely: tilapia (below). Omnipresent on menus, and in my opinion, omni-blah. I ordered it at Zafra only because I was with a friend, a Zafra regular, who raved about it—with good reason. Crusted with crispy, crunchy coconut, perfectly cooked and topped with mango salsa, this was a fish dish worth coming back for.

We also liked Zafra’s gentrified version of street food—deep-fried cornmeal empanadas filled with a choice of beef, mango chicken or spinach, and jack cheese; and huge, incredibly fresh, sweet shrimp on skewers, grilled with a shimmering rum glaze, were equally pleasing. Cuban dumplings filled with seasoned pork turned out to be fried, not steamed—possibly a bit ill advised—but a gorgeous, dark rum dipping sauce elevated these little packages of dough from glum to glorious.

But for my money, Zafra’s entrées are its strength. A grilled boneless rib-eye steak was a case in point. Supremely tender and exceptionally flavorful, it needed little, if any, enhancement but Zafra ratcheted up the excitement with its own secret adobe spice rub. Chimichurri sauce, served on the side, pales in comparison. I’d say skip the sauce and let the spice rub do its thing. On the other hand, a guava barbecue sauce turned a pleasant little filet of salmon into a dish to remember.When it comes to “authentic” dishes like lechon asado (which Spain, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Cuba all claim as their “national dish”), ingredients, recipes and methodology differ contentiously enough to start a war. Although I have enjoyed many a festive pig roast on a palm-fringed beach on Vieques Island off the coast of Puerto Rico, I am not about to enter the fray—there is really no right or wrong way to make this multinational pork dish. Suffice to say I liked Zafra’s version, affordably priced at $17, slow roasted and topped with sautéed onions. So let’s drink to lechon asado—yours, mine, theirs—and go on to Zafra’s dessert list.

It’s short, perhaps because there are so many scintillating sweet rum drinks one might choose in lieu of dessert. But the sinfully decadent rum-soaked bread pudding should not be missed, the tres leches cake is excellent, and for me, the mango sorbet is the ideal cool-down after an exhilarating meal.

Notwithstanding its 300 rums, Zafra is no posh Tropicana nightclub-style watering hole. The bar is not topped with Carrera marble or even vintage tin. The back room is furnished with nondescript bare wood tables and straight-backed chairs. Interior Design magazine is not expected to call for a photo shoot anytime soon. But Zafra proffers something rarer, a trip back in time to a neighborhood bar on a side street in old Havana a couple of blocks from the Malecon.

Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar

259 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 859-5342, zafrarumbar.com

Open Mon. 4 to 10 p.m., Tues. and Wed. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thurs. and Fri. 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m., Sat. 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., Sun. 4 to 10 p.m. Price range: appetizers $8.95 to $16.95; entrées $14.95 to $24.95. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.

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This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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