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Cuba Calling

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Paladar, says our waiter, is what you’d call a restaurant started in somebody’s home in Cuba. And this, he declares, is the guiding concept behind the so-named new Hollywood café on Wilcox. “This is the living room area,” he says, speaking of a central space enclosed in high wrought-iron fencing with a hexagonal beeswax pattern. Behind us, the bar feels something like a kitchen or maybe a rumpus room; and around us — well, the banquette could be a hallway, or small bedrooms, whatever. The concept is loose, allusive, meant to evoke rather than convince. The entry wall is paved in resiny gold-brown leaves — tobacco, of course, Cuba’s great cash crop. The north wall is painted the pale blue of afternoon skies and hung with photos of Cuba, old American cars, a stenciled graphic of Ché.

We are here in the living room cage, drinking, before our meal. Cuban jazz plays at a perfect volume — loud enough to energize, soft enough for conversation. The Cuban sidecar, made with orange liqueur, rum and lime juice, is, by report, refreshing and effective. Around us, many people are quaffing the pale, slightly opaque, leaf-strewn drinks called mojitos, which are the now-ubiquitous drink du jour all over town. Idly, we wonder: When and how did drinks get so expensive, $8, $9, $10 per cocktail! Paladar did not start this trend, but here it is, entrenched.

When it comes to food, Paladar’s kitchen is as allusively postmodern as its décor. I’d call the cuisine Cubanesque — food that starts out from a Cuban idea and then is embroidered, expanded, refined, if not always improved upon. In the best cases, the basic sensuality of Cuban cooking — the broad lash of garlic, the clarifying douse of citrus, the luscious sweetness of plantains and caramelized milk, the savory sautée of flavor-enhancing aromatic vegetables or “soffritto” — makes it through the translation to trendy Hollywood dinner item.

Soffritto rock shrimp, for example, contains a catalog of Cuban elements: shrimp, chiles, plantains, soffritto; but the soffritto is enhanced with cream, the plantains appear as a sweet, crunchy, moist-centered “cake” or fritter, the shrimp are delicately cooked — this is Cubanesque at its best. A plate of small, juicy New Zealand lamb chops is Cuban inasmuch as they have the flavor and garlic quotient of the great Cuban meat dishes. Grilled octopus is too chewy, though its stewlike salsa of diced squash and cranberry beans is, in itself, a treat. A lone plump crab cake bursts with blue crab and sits on an herbed lentil salad, or rather, on the mere idea of a lentil salad — really, there aren’t enough of the tiny, coin-shaped legumes even to taste.

The watercress salad with yellow beets and fennel shavings comes with an insipid coconut-milk dressing that cries out for more salt, oil, something. Meanwhile, the avocado salad — which, in more traditional paladars, would be just avocado with a drizzle of olive oil and maybe a few threads of onion — is tricked up with a grainy mustard dressing and a mound of baby red pear tomatoes: It’s good, but no improvement on the original.

Again, among the entrées, there are some great successes, and a few disappointments. The ropa vieja doesn’t look like much, just stewed meat in a bowl topped with a few green peas, very minimal, but it’s wonderfully, deeply seasoned, its yarnlike texture inexplicably pleasurable, and its classic accompaniments — the house’s good black beans, rice and fried plantains — just right: a classic preserved. Skirt steak, long marinated, is also profoundly tasty, rare and tender with a good smoky hit from the grill. Caribbean roast chicken, big-flavored after a long soak in garlic and citrus juices, has that dreamy, sticky caramelized skin.

A pork chop, though thick and juicy and served on delicious mashed boniato (a starchy Cuban root vegetable), is oddly ordinary, substantially less realized than other dishes, a real concession to perceived American (or Hollywood) tastes. This is a pity given that pork is such a major and celebrated element of Cuban cuisine. Also disappointing is a rather murky oxtail stew — it tastes a bit old. And a petit filet is a little too petite and over-cooked, though its crisp, chewy frites — actually boniato fries — make regular French fries seem wan in comparison. Don’t miss the tostones, battered fried green plantains drenched in that quintessential Cuban elixir of garlic-citrus oil, mojo de ajo.

For dessert, the coconut crème brûlée enriches upon — really, gilds — the old familiar standby. Rice pudding you could use to patch your air conditioner. But the Ciao Bella dulce de leche ice cream and authentically mild-’n’-sandy guava sorbet are a just-right ending to dinner.

Paladar, it should be said, is greater than the sum of its parts. The drinks may be pricey, the service a bit spotty, the food sometimes more wonderful than others, the décor more interesting than beautiful, but we always have a great time there — eating, laughing, talking with friends. As if it were home.

Paladar, 1651 Wilcox Ave., Hollywood, (323) 465-7500. Lunch and dinner Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.; dinner Sat. 5–11 p.m., Sun. 5–10 p.m. Full bar. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Entrées, $13–$22.


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