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Authentic Cuban Cuisine

Nestled between residential housing on Oak Street, Laurel's Cuban Restaurant proves to be an inconspicuously rewarding experience. The sterile ceiling lights, mirrors, photos of Cuba, and artfully placed palms and ferns give the impression of a Havana hotel restaurant. The separated, two-party tables on the perimeter and mellow background salsa music create a comfortable, dress-casual date atmosphere; large parties may feel a tad claustrophobic due to the limited seating.

The meals are straight up Cuban cooking, and vary by degrees between simple and soulful to exotic and elegant. The range is creative and exhaustive, covering the gamut of Cuban meals, including grilled and fried seafood, steak, pork, chicken, rabbit, some earthy stews, and a wicked paella. The sauces, or salsas to be precise, are exquisite, with subtle hints of saffron, citrus, and seafood au jus that make the grilled fish melt in your mouth.

Of particular note is the Bacalao a la Parrilla, a grilled codfish topped with sautťed garlic, tomatoes, and onions, served with saffron rice and maduros (fried sweet plantains). Mariscos Cubana is a delightful mixture of prawns, scallops, calamari, mussels, and clams, topped with a tangy tomato salsa, and Fufu con Ropa Vieja, a tender beef stew served with Fufu, a bed of mashed sweet plantains, is a pleasant surprise.

My search for maduros reminiscent of Little Havana in Miami is over; at Laurel's they are fried and sweetened perfectly. Other soulful tangents are fried rabbit and fried pork chops, Arroz con Pollo, and a devilishly rich three-milk flan, which atones for its caloric sin. A moderate selection of Napa and Australian wines, along with pitchers or glasses of sangria, accompany the food offerings.

The focus at Laurel's is on the food, unlike some of the other Spanish style tapas restaurants in the city that have a bar in the center and peripheral appetizers. Cuban cooking is a soulful tangent to Spanish cuisine, and Laurel's does it justice.