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.