Welcome to the Havana of dreams: plastic palms in the parking lot, cigars for sale in the lobby and a hi-glam dining room with ceilings draped in gauze. Sí, sí, they make a potent mojito - and also killer sangria, each glass garnished with a jaunty apple circle.
But just how good (if not authentic) is the Cuban and Caribbean cookery of Havana-born chef Ricardo Maldonado Rivera?
Sign me up for more empanadas, flaky stuffed pastries available with either crab, shrimp or beef; I like all three. I give a big ¡Ay, caramba! to the vibrant seviche (citrus-marinated seafood salad) served in a martini glass and garnished with curls of fried plantains.
Meltingly good would describe Rivera's grill-pressed Cuban sandwiches (roasted pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard) on eggy brioche-type bread. What I'm most hooked on, though, is the Caribbean mofongo (mashed, spiced garlicky fried green plantain) topped with succulent slices of skirt steak - a whole other kind of comfort food.
The kitchen veers toward sweet, fruity presentations and flavors. I'm a fan of the chicken, pineapple and ginger pinchos, juicy grilled marinated kebabs artfully presented. Sweet plantains stuffed with beef and cheese taste exactly the way they sound - fine, if you're OK with fruit and meat together.
The kitchen needs to learn the difference between sweet and cloying. Coconut shrimp tastes like it's been coated with shreds of Baker's Angel Flake. And what about the candylike glazed chicken, pieces of boneless poultry glossed with caramelized brown sugar?
At dessert, tembleque, coconut pudding, is as sugary as arroz con dulce, rice pudding studded with raisins and imbued with the heavy taste of cloves. Fried Havana banana is spritzed with aerosol whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.
Servers are well meaning but in need of training. A question to our waitress sends her scurrying to the kitchen for answers she should know.
The well-priced menu is somewhat different each time I visit, a sign of a work in progress. Will the food ultimately live up to the cool decor and hot entertainment (live Latin jazz on weekends)? I'm hopeful.
Cafe Havana Bar & Grill is located at 944 W. Jericho Tpke., Smithtown, 631-670-6277