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This latest Latin restaurant brings a little taste of Cuba to Stamford.

Kashmiri Pulao

Photograph by Bob Capazzo

If you’re craving Latin food or just wishing you were on island time, you’re in luck. The tropical flavors of Cuba can now be savored closer to home. Trendy restaurant Habana has left its cavernous South Norwalk space and recently took over a cozier locale on Hope Street, with Tony Marin retained as chef.

“Stamford already has plenty of Italian restaurants,” says owner Lushe Gjuraj, who describes the new restaurant as even better than the SoNo spot. “I wanted to bring something unique to town.”

When friends and I visited the new Habana for dinner on a chilly spring evening, the island-influenced menu was immediately appealing, as were the requisite rum drinks. While waiting for my husband and me to arrive, the couple we were meeting hit the downstairs bar to sip some Habana specialties: a fresh mojito and a Gosling’s Dark and Stormy. I’ll admit to a weakness for the sailor’s favorite, and I was happy to see it on the menu, which included Dominican beer Presidente as well as Estrella Damm from Spain. There are festive fruity options too, including a Blue Hawaii and a rum punch called the Habana. The cocktails outshine the nondescript lower-level bar and second dining room, however, which could benefit from livelier décor. Once the restaurant’s outside patio is open for the season, this will be a fun place to meet for drinks.

Upstairs, we were seated in the casual, comfortable main dining room, which has one wall of exposed brick, huge sepia photos of Cuba on the walls and craft paper topping the tables. (All but two were filled on a Friday night.) The waitress was simpatica and quick to bring bread with a delicious dipping sauce of cilantro, basil, garlic and mint. 

To taste an assortment of appetizers, we ordered the Big Kahuna Cubanesian Pupu Platter, a satisfying start to the meal with ample portions for the four of us.

My favorite pupus were the chicken empanada and Miami Vice, an unusual combination of portobello mushrooms with warm goat cheese, sundried tomato salsa and balsamic syrup on malanga chips. Very tasty! The pork-filled Cuban spring roll had a pleasant spice to it, but
it was a tad greasy as though it had been fried a little too long. The coconut shrimp and crab cakes were enhanced by the sauces that came with the platter—a white chipotle mayo with chives and cilantro and a sweet and sour sauce with ginger and sesame oil.

The standout among the entrées we tried was Tilapia Negro. Served on a long, white tray, this flaky and lightly blackened fish served with sweet potato hash and chorizo is adorned with an avocado-mango relish. It looks beautiful and tastes even better. I especially liked the mango topping. Another fish dish, one of Habana’s mos popular, is plantain-crusted Chilean sea bass served with a mango wine sauce. We also enjoyed the Guava Glazed Ribs, baby back ribs with a fruit-infused barbecue sauce. The toothsome ribs are paired with fried yucca and a mango relish, which made for a very sweet combination; I would have preferred something savory to balance the plate.

Steak chimichurri was a bit of a miss: The grilled skirt steak was on the fatty side and the mashed potatoes were bland.

If you want beef, opt for the Cuban classic Ropa Vieja instead, the traditional shredded brisket with onions, peppers and tomatoes that is a favorite among regulars. The paella is a hearty version, piled high with clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, chorizo and chicken with saffron rice.

One of the highlights of the meal came last. Habana’s version of Tres Leches cake is fluffy, creamy, and outstanding. Everyone at the table liked the churros as well. A cousin of homemade donuts, these crisp-coated churros are divine when dunked into the rich, semisweet chocolate sauce.

A decadent ending to a fun evening.

For a culinary change of pace and a casual night out with friends—think cocktails and pupus on the soon-to-be-opened outdoor patio—Habana fits the bill.    

Try some recipes from Habana:

245 Hope Street, Stamford, CT
Cuisine: Cuban
Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.
Mon.–Thur. 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Fri. and Sat.  5 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Sun. 5 p.m.–9 p.m.

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