COULD USE MORE HEAT The empanadas of the day.
If you visit the Web site of Havana South, a new restaurant in the Old Port, you will find a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama looking handsome and happy. They were actually at the original Havana restaurant in Bar Harbor earlier this summer, but it's not a bad idea to borrow some presidential luster for the new venture. Both Havana and its new "cousin" Havana South, are less Cuban than they sound. Nonetheless, the restaurant was a bold choice (especially for a man who makes too few bold choices), since the right-wing media looks for any chance to associate him with socialism and Castro's Havana farther-South. While Obama visited the more polished of the two restaurants, his administration is a better metaphor for the newer Havana South: still finding its feet, and you can quibble with the details, but on a fundamental level, the place is really appealing — with enough talent and interesting ideas to make you hope for great things to come.
Havana South feels cozy enough despite occupying a sprawling space on Wharf Street — including the former locations of Cake, Iguana, and Chiang Mai. They have broken up the space nicely, with a warm red-tinged dining room and an attractive bar. The salvaged wood in the dining room looks great. On a Wednesday a four-piece band played Latin jazz at just the right volume, and families mixed comfortably with the dressed-up Old Port crowd. Sharp and sour house cocktails are great looking in their low-ball glasses.
The menu is somewhere between Latin American and American with Latin touches. Generally speaking, the kitchen has a pretty gentle hand with the spices. One appetizer featured a pile of lightly dressed greens and three juicy, perfectly done scallops dusted with huitlacoche. It's a sort of corn-fungus (the menu calls it a "Mexican truffle") that lends a funky richness to the dish. The empanada of the day was rich as well, but otherwise disappointing. The pastry, an odd orange-red color, was thick and chewy rather than flakey. The filling of beef, pork, and red beans could have used more heat to cut through the sweet richness of the meat, though they were served with a sharp onion-chutney. The pedestrian pastry was all the more confusing because our apps came with a terrific light, fluffy, sweet cornbread.
Our mid-meal was enlivened by a visit from Ezra the wine guy, a sort of thinking man's Zach Galifianakis, who helped us find the right glasses to accompany our entrées. The dry red he gave me was great with the rioja-marinated rack of lamb. The meat was beautifully cooked, with a nice smoky char and tender interior. Beet greens had been sautéed but kept a good chew and their great bitter-vegetal flavor, and were terrific. We feared too much sweetness from the mashed potatoes made with honey. But the inclusion of some salty reggianito cheese offset the sugars while potato skin and diced onions gave them texture. Altogether it was a great entrée.