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The Spanish chorizo sofrito steamers features clams, mussels and chorizo in a leek-infused white wine sauce and charred bread

FEATURES

Revolutionary Tastes

By Jamie Gwen

Photography by Tim Melideo

03.20.18

With Habana’s new spot at Irvine Spectrum Center, South County gastronomes can delight in the authentic flavors and vibrant spirit of Cuba.

The tantalizing spirit of Cuba is alive and kicking. At the new Habana at Irvine Spectrum Center, it’s present in the notable national dish ropa vieja, the succulently tender pork shank, the chorizo-laden steamers and the sweet caramelized plantains. And, oh, the alfajores—they alone are worth the trip.

At Habana, your palate will be treated to an explosion of Caribbean flavors, richly influenced by Spanish zest and African ingredients, and lush with heart and soul. You can feel the vibrant pulse of Cuban music, taste the sweetness of tropical fruit and savor the appreciation for a well-made cafe con leche. And the excitement, passion and authenticity are palpable in every sip and bite.

In our beloved O.C., ethnic influences are wonderfully widespread—the delight of classic dim sum, the thrill of a genuine taqueria. But authentic Cuban cuisine is unique. After 20 years of perfecting their craft, veteran restaurateurs Jeffrey Best and Kenneth Jones have opened the long-awaited sister to their popular Costa Mesa outpost. With chef Alex Moreno at the helm, the new establishment boasts 300-plus seats to experience classic Cuban flavors that tantalize the senses.

The bar is a spectacle—grandiose and gorgeous, with the shimmer of bottles from floor to ceiling and a 2,000-pound pineapple chandelier that hangs at the center of what resembles a Cuban mansion, giving you the notion that you’ve stepped back in time. A glorious wraparound patio will welcome you to dine alfresco. Or opt for indoor seating, and be sure to appreciate the vintage wrought-iron tables and the artifacts decorating the space.

 

Pull up a seat at Habana’s wraparound bar for happy hour.

And then there’s the menu—cócteles, aperitivos, ensaladitas and platos grandes. To whet your whistle, the classic rum and coke boasts a fabulous presentation—presented in a cigar box, with handcarved ice cubes and all the accoutrements you need to mix the timeless drink to your liking. And the Celia Cruz cocktail will transport you to the tropics with one sip—it offers the sweet tang of Huana liqueur (think strawberry, pineapple and creamy coconut) combined with vodka and the bright acidity of fresh lemon juice.

Crispy taro, sweet potato and plantain chips will arrive at your table with a trio of sauces—the black bean is a standout—to fire up your senses. Then order big because the dishes are best shared, and the ceviche is calling. Shrimp, octopus and whitefish unite, bathed in a velvety marinade of coconut goodness, and the seafood medley is best perched atop tostones—the definitive Cuban double-deep-fried plantain cakes. The Spanish-inspired chorizo sofrito steamers are paired with gargantuan slices of grilled bread for sopping up the delectable leek-infused white wine broth. And opt for the Habana Caesar—the romaine comes slightly charred and is served warm to soak up papaya seed dressing. Then, it’s on to the big plates.

The Paella a la Habana elevates the classic you’re accustomed to. An array of masterfully cooked seafood and shellfish arrive on a bed of strongly scented saffron rice, adorned with jalapeno aioli to round out the goodness. The gambas al ajillo offers a generous sum of meaty shrimp swimming in roasted garlic oil with blistered cherry tomatoes and white rice. And the chef’s El Puerco Primo is, indeed, primo—a testament to the long, slow cooking of a pork shank until it falls off the bone in sheer, tender abandon over rustic mashed potatoes and braised greens that are out-of-this-world good. The dish is a masterful example of the time and love that Habana puts into representing Cuban cuisine in such a fine light.

Dessert is a definite, and I suggest that you venture over to the on-site bakery to treat yourself to a number of impressively baked confections prepared in-house by pastry chef Katherine Russ. It’s the delicate alfajores —butter cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche— that remain in my culinary memory. They make for a perfect ending to a night in Cuba that’s nestled right in our backyard.

Live music, a much-loved weekend brunch and authentic Cuban beer will draw you in, but the fresh fare, lively atmosphere and attentive service will ignite your passion. Yes, Old Havana is alive at Habana.

 

Edible flowers and fresh berries add pops of color to a sweet banana-based special.

HABANA
708 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, 949.419.0100

Starters, $7-$18; salads, $8-$10; entrees, $22-$56; desserts, $6-$9

Sun.-Thu. 7-1am; Fri.-Sat. 7-2am; happy hour Mon.-Thu. 4-6pm and Fri.-Sat. 10pm-midnight; brunch Sun. 10am-3pm