By Heather Bryce
With half a century behind it, Victor’s Café and Cuba Lounge, is hurtling headlong into the future with the appointment of its new chef.
“Victor’s philosophy has always been one of maintaining the authenticity of Cuban cuisine while evolving with the times,” reads a press release. But first, a bit about its past.
The Times Square mainstay actually began life in 1963 in the no man’s land of the Upper West Side when Victor Del Corral, a Cuban émigré, founded his ambitious eatery at 71st Street and Columbus Avenue. His homeland’s cuisine and lively atmosphere were an instant hit with regular New Yorkers and celebrities then including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Barbra Streisand looking for their usual meat and potatoes, which he served with a daring twist.
The family-owned restaurant, now run by the third generation, moved to its present location on West 52nd Street in 1980 where its whirring overhead fans and potted palms smack of sub-tropical Havana and their new crop of patrons include Barbara Walters, Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. The new chef, Miguel Massens, a Cuban-American from Miami, joined the establishment in November. Only 27, he brings with him a solid respect for the traditional dishes, but has made small changes. During his short tenure he has tweaked the stock and added a more current paella presentation, served in its pan, where the dish is weightier on seafood (lobster, clams, scallops) than the usual chicken and rabbit-heavy preparation.
“Cuban food has been halted for 50 years,” he told us as we dined there recently. “I would like to see it catch up to the rest of the world.” With his help, it will. Massens has studied Spanish, African, French and Arab cuisine. “I have a lot of pools to draw from.” An example of one item he’d like to add to the menu is guinea hen, which he sees in a lot of 4-star restaurants. “It’s a bird that comes from Africa,” he said. “Back then they threw it on the fire with stew.” He intends to confit the legs, slow cook the breast, and flavor it with African ingredients including millet and yuca, which he said is both African and Cuban. Massens also prepares gnocchi, traditionally made with potatoes, out of the starchy root.
Victor’s menu reflects traditional dishes with a contemporary sensibility. House specialties include such standbys as Rollitos de Yuca y Camarones (soft yuca rolls, creole shrimp, idiazabal cheese) and Bartolito (Sweet plantain, pork stuffing, black bean puree, goat cheese).
We start with Victor’s signature mojito, a blow-your-mind cocktail that delivers a tropical high, buttressed by the swaying fronds of a neighboring palm. Disks of fried plantain, a formidable stand-in for corn chips comes with a kicky tomato sauce and a cilantro-garlic sauce we could have drunk by the quart.
A friendly waitstaff is led by Armando, whose expertise and friendly manner make him a worthy extension of the family. So we leave the ordering to him. Our salad is a delightful mix including generous slices of avocado and a wow-inspiring mango vinaigrette. The wonderful entrees, which delighted even our guest with a bland palate, runs the gamut from snow crab with fluffy polenta, a Cuban style roast suckling pig that is the moistest pork imaginable, salmon with yummy charred pineapple, and the house specialty, Ropa Vieja, a delicious slow braised and pulled skirt steak in a lively garlic pepper sauce.
As we feast on dessert – a phenomenal warm guava cobbler that oozes tropical flavor and a molten chocolate “lava” cake erupting with liquid fudge – we consider heading next door to the Cuba Lounge where a live band is playing salsa. But we are so sated we decide to wait till next time when we will have room left to sample the tapas and house sangria.