When I was a young girl growing up in Suburbia, U.S.A., my vision of New York City was mostly based on the black-and-white movies my grandmother and I used to watch on Saturday nights in her kitchen. The television screen was teeny, but it showed me a Manhattan that was a glittering metropolis, inhabited by glamorous, well-to-do people, all of them dressed to kill, impeccably well-mannered, clever, and quick-witted. None of them, not even the men, ever seemed to have a job. That meant they could sleep in after late nights at what I came to recognize as supper clubs.
At the supper clubs everybody seemed to know one another, table-hopping was de rigueur, martinis were the cocktails of choice, and everybody smoked. Trapped in a four-bedroom house on a tree-lined street, with a stay-at-home mom and a doting dad, four younger siblings, a beagle, and a station wagon in the driveway, I longed to live the life I saw on my grandmother’s 12-inch portable television.
By the time I got to New York, that lifestyle was a thing of the past, if it had ever existed at all. By the time I got to New York, night life was concentrated in the singles bars of First Avenue, rock clubs like Max’s Kansas City, gay dance clubs, and the über-disco of all time, Studio 54. No more Rainbow Room or El Morocco.
Last winter, on my first visit to Havana Lounge, our own Second Avenue supper club, I had a vague sense of déjà vu. It was a Saturday night. There was a sweeping bar in the middle of the room, crowded with people drinking martinis. Against the wall there were banquettes upholstered with zebra-type fabric. Toward the back of the room, there was a lounge area and what might be taken for a dance floor. The sound system was piping out smooth tunes. Everywhere you looked, people were smoking, heavy on the cigars.
The only thing missing was the glamour. The crowd at Havana Lounge on that particular winter night consisted mostly of college students home for the holidays, young marketing and advertising reps, and cellular-phone salespeople. You know what I mean. Friends. Caroline in the City. Ally McBeal. Cute, but hardly glamorous. (Not that glamour should be the sole measure of a restaurant’s success. Food is always a consideration.)
When I returned to Havana Lounge a couple of weeks ago to sample the menu, I brought the glamour with mefour of my most alluring, witty, clever, impeccably well-mannered girlfriends, all of them dressed to kill. (At least, the group of Ft. Campbell soldiers camped out at the bar thought so.) We requested a table center stage, slid into a banquette, ordered martinis, and lit up. When in Rome....
The name of the restaurant had originally led me to believe the menu would be Cuban. I was disappointed to learn that was not necessarily the case. Nevertheless, as we ate our way through Chef Chris Cunningham’s eclectic, exotic menu, my disappointment turned to delight.
There is definitely a Cuban influence at Havana, along with a taste of the islands, some Southwestern flavors, and a nod to our own regional cuisine.
Appetizers are called “tastings” and sharing is encouraged. The size of the portions, and the eye-catching presentations will have you reaching your fork across the table for a bite off your companions’ plates. The starter prices ($4.95-$8.95) are astonishingly low, so frugal diners, or anyone wanting to sample a wide variety of dishes, could make a meal of them.
There are 12 starters to choose from, including two soups. Of the ones we sampled, the standouts, at opposite ends of the flavor spectrum, were the salmon corn cake and the Bay of Escargot. The former rewarded us with a giddy burst of freshness from the lime crème fraÎche and cilantro, and an admirable balance of salt from the smoked salmon and sweet from the corn cake. The Bay of Escargot is a far earthier dish. The tender little snails are removed from their shells and combined with seared, fresh spinach, morsels of mushrooms, and chopped tomato in a sherry-mushroom demi-glace. Two triangles of perfect-textured country ham polenta stand in the center of the plate, crispy outside, creamy within. I admit to eating more than my share.
The lobster and roasted-poblano bisque was sinfully rich and thick with lobster shreds. The black bean soup is topped with the moon and the stars, piped in avocado sour cream. They turned out to be more impressive than the actual soup, which I found bland. Likewise, the crab-ham-asparagus cake was marred by having stayed too long in the panand not long enough on the draining towel.
The good house salad is a mix of mesclun greens, tomatoes, caramelized onions, spiced toasted walnuts, and chunks of lemony goat cheese. (I would have left the tomatoes off that day.) You’ll want to share the big, beautiful spinach salad, a gorgeous construction of bright, green spinach, strips of roasted red pepper and sun-dried tomato, stalks of grilled baby asparagus, and juicy slices of meaty grilled portobellos, touched off with an intense balsamic glaze and accompanied by a thick red-pepper coulis.
Each of the 10 entrées is accompanied by its own selection of side dishesno two of them alikeand they might even persuade you to choose the lamb, with its yam flan, plantain chips, and steamed artichoke quarter, over the Heydey Filet, which comes with cilantro goat cheese mashed potatoes and creamy corn compote. But you won’t go wrong with either. The salmon, which comes with more of the fabulous country-ham polenta and fresh orange salsa, is another winner. The menu’s description of the pork loin Basque Creole sounded zesty, but it was actually uninteresting, living down to its billing as the other white meat. Likewise, the anticipation for the Island Jerk Prawns was more exciting than the reality. These prawns were actually the size of medium shrimp and were seriously overgrilled, to boot. I was eager to try the curried lobster risotto but set my fork down after one inedibly salty bite. Someone should have tasted it before it left the kitchen.
The arrival of spectacular desserts lifted our spirits once again, particularly the classy chocolate “martini” and the homey banana bread pudding.
Havana Lounge may lack the genuine New York glamour I craved as a child, but the atmosphere in the room is lively, and the food more than carries its weight. More than once during dinner, as we admired the cool bar, the cozy seating arrangments, the sexy music, and the incredibly flattering lighting, we noted what a great place Havana Lounge would be for a dinner date. You know, a real date. A date date. With a guy. And a girl. A man. And a woman. Just like they used to do in the olden days. On my grandmother’s TV. Remember?
Havana Lounge is located at 154 Second Ave. N. (313-7665). Mon.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fri. & Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Live music on Wednesday nights.