Cuba once had the largest Chinese ex-pat population in Latin America. Havana’s El Bario Chino (its Chinatown) occupied 44 square blocks in 1870, though today it is restricted to a portion of Calle Cuchillo (“Knife Street”).
Chinese–Cubans predictably migrated to New York, where Chelsea and the Upper West Side became home to “dozens of greasy spoons, unique in that they served Chinese food and Cuban food in separate measure, side by side.” That era has long since passed. More recently, Jeffrey Chodorow’s Asia de Cuba was a clubby, upscale riff on the same idea. The New York outpost closed in 2011, but it soldiers on in London.
I haven’t seen much evidence that New Yorkers mourned the loss. But Naples native Marco Britti fell in love with Cuban–Chinese fusion cuisine when he lived in Havana. He is betting that the city will welcome its re-introduction. To carry out the concept, he hired chef Humberto Guallpa, who was executive chef at Vandaag for its final year in business, from 2011–12. (Britti also owns Favela Cubana, a more straightforward Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village.)
Welcome to Calle Dão, a fusion restaurant with a fusion name: “knife” in Mandarin, “street” in Spanish. It’s located on one of those forlorn midtown streets where you’d have no reason to go without an appointment, but I suspect they do good lunch business here. Dinner could pick up if the concept catches on.
But will it? There’s no rule that necessarily limits chefs to the cuisine they grew up with. Yet, when an Italian (Britti) and an Ecuadoran (Guallpa) are charged with reproducing the cultures of China and Cuba, you fear that something will be lost in translation. The dark room feels like the Epcot version of Havana. It’s comfortable enough, but the authenticity seems faked.
I never experienced the greasy-spoon version of Cuban–Chinese fusion, but the elements of both cultures are plainly evident, with chopsticks and silverware at every place setting. You’ll certainly pay more than in Havana, with appetizers and ceviches $8–12, entrées $13–32 (most over $25), and side dishes $8.
The meal begins with chips and salsa (above left). The kitchen did just fine with Duck Empanadas ($8; above right).
So too with Spring Rolls ($7; above left). A Pig’s Ear salad ($8; above right), with a sesame chili sauce and cilantro, was intriguing, but its one-note taste grew tiresome before I’d finished it.
Vaca Frita, or braised pulled skirt steak ($28; above left) is seasoned with peppers, onions, and beans, and served on a bed of rice. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it seemed over-priced for a mediocre steak.
Peking-Style Cornish Hen ($24; above right) didn’t taste like Peking anything I have ever had. I made out garlic and shallots; the menu mentions a tomato–cilantro–parsley sauce, the whole effect tasting slightly too bitter.
We had no complaint with either dessert. Churros ($8; above left), with the consistency of sugar-coated doughnuts, came with a cinnamon–black cardamom chocolate sauce. The Flan ($8; above right) was just about perfect.
We didn’t try any of the house cocktails ($14 each). The wine list is short and inexpensive, with twenty bottles, almost all under $50, and eleven of them available by the glass. The server was friendly, with a tendency to upsell, but we didn’t get talked into anything we regretted.
I have my doubts about whether Chinese–Cuban fusion cuisine is destined to take off, or at least this version of it. The menu is pleasant enough, with the occasional hit and no serious misses, but I was left with no serious itch to return.
Calle Dão (38 W. 39th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)
Food: Chinese–Cuban fusion cuisine
Service: Friendly and welcoming; occasional upselling
Ambiance: Havana as Epcot would do it