Even after more than three years of diligently dining out as much as our cholesterol level or bank account allow us, we have yet to cover every single restaurant along Angel Islington’s Upper Street and Essex Road. We could perhaps do that if we stop going back to the places that we love (Food Lab, Ottolenghi, Blue Legume, The Albion, Isarn - just to name a few.
It so happened that Wife’s fellow mothers’ group elected to have a gathering at Cuba Libre and Havana Bar, which is just opposite the triangular patch of green right smacked into the centre of Angel. Wife returned after that and hinted that she was rather unimpressed by Cuba Libre’s offerings. But its lunch tapas set at £7.45 for four tapas sounded really good and I was there a couple of days later to check it out.
If ambience alone matters, Cuba Libre would probably emerged right at the top. For those who are familiar with the dictatorship simulation game Tropico, that was the soundtrack playing in the background throughout my lunch. I could almost expect Fidel himself swaggering in with his trademark cigar in one hand. In fact, there’s a caricature of him (I believe) just towards the top right of the entrance. Just tilt your head up right when you enter and you'll see him waving his cigar at a lady (!) waving her shoe (!!) at him. Either that or I had too much tapas.
There was a very street feel to the whole setting. As I have never been to Cuba, I believe Cuba Libre might just be how the bar/food shops actually look like over there. A close parallel would probably be Dishoom for Bombay cafes and Delhi Grill for dhaba.
We were the only ones there that afternoon but the place did look like it would get livelier towards the evening when people just want to hang out and get drunk with food becoming more of a sideshow. The lone waitress greeted us warmly and propped up this sizable chalkboard menu against an adjacent table. The only place that does exactly that was Antonio's Ristorante, which is further up north along Upper Street. I often wonder why the huge menu. For the hapless myopics like myself perhaps? But it did occupy us for the next couple of minutes.
Truth to be told, we have already made up our minds on what to order even before we stepped into Cuba Libre. Wife did mention that there were only a handful of meat tapas and she helpfully reminded me to go for the omelette as I would "need something to fill up my stomach". Eventually, between the two of us, we ordered calamares, octopus, garlic chicken, fish croquette, chicken croquette, meatballs and two omelettes.
As I was saying earlier, if ambience if the only factor, Cuba Libre would emerged right up there. But ambience is hardly the sole factor, isn't it? Maybe if I were a bit tipsy, which I wasn't by the way, I would find Cuba Libre's offerings more satisfying. But the calamares was limp, octopus was flaccid with its accompanying potato tasted a tad flat, all the rest of the tapas were unfortunately unmemorable. And yes, the omelette, while bland, turned out to be the sole stomach filler.
There were some rumblings on Urbanspoon that Cuba Libre's pallela was a disappointment and hardly authentic. Having not ordered that, I couldn't verify but its tapas had the look but not the taste of the Spanish inspired snack. And yes, if you can afford to splurge a bit, I suggest you head towards Morito instead.
21 hours ago