Old Havana romance translates in many Ocho dishes
Published: September 14, 2011
It’s hard to know what to call Ocho. Is it a bar-slash-lounge that wants to be a restaurant or a restaurant with a very important bar? As it’s part of the newly resuscitated Hotel Havana, it is obliged to offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner to guests. But then the seating is such, especially if you count the cave-like downstairs bar, that dining can be a little awkward. Tables are few and small in the glassy, street-level loggia overlooking the River Walk; loungey seating (including some Friedrich horn chairs) is more the norm, the better to nurse along a Santiago Painkiller or a Hemingway Daiquiri. So, despite a long and appealing breakfast menu, we’ve got to go with lounge and simply vow never to go with a crowd intent on serious eating. Serious drinking, yes.
The bar does take up much of the middle of the handsome space, colored by chandeliers and “Tiffany blue” paint details. But if it’s going to be as critically important as it is physically, a few more crafted cocktails might be in order. The Montserrat (sotol, St. Germaine, vermouth, bitters) has a good balance of flavor but got short shake recently and was accordingly served too warm — though with a genuine maraschino cherry, not one of the frighteningly fluorescent numbers. The Havana Margarita is better than many in a town that should know better, but the rest of the list may take tropical Cuba a little too much to heart — at least for this imbiber. Wines are few, but not knee-jerk. And there’s a short but classy beer list.
The food, conceived by Lou Lambert and Larry McGuire of Austin’s Perla (Lambert is the brother of Liz Lambert, who can be credited with the hotel’s renaissance), has also been inspired by the romance of old Havana, blending in a touch of the border and beyond. The huitlacoche quesadillas are handsomely served with contrasting salsas but would be better yet by toning down the cheese so that the fungus can shine. The papas bravas — cubed, chile-dusted, and served with harissa aioli plus roasted poblano, caramelized onions, and queso fresco — simply try too hard. The shrimp and crab campechana may be fussier looking than anything served on Mexico’s coast (the “twice-baked” Saltines don’t add much), but it’s fresh and appealing regardless.
Ocho’s house-made spiced potato chips were feeling the humidity on the day I had them with a Havana Cubano torta; it was easy to sympathize. The sandwich itself hadn’t wilted, though; it stood taller than most classic, pressed versions. And it lacked the traditional ham. But the achiote-roasted pork shoulder was a welcome turn, full of great porky flavor. I’m almost always happier to see Dijon than ballpark mustard (except at a ballpark). And I appreciated the generous Swiss cheese and copious pickles. A “Hippie” with black bean hummus, a tinga de pollo torta, and a hamburguesa round out the sandwich section.