Cienfuegos has been referred to as a rum “speakeasy,” a term that has surely outlived its usefulness, but the place is not really so secret.
You simply enter its sister establishment, Carteles, a sunny, blue-and-yellow-tiled sandwich shop and bar in the East Village, and ask for a table upstairs in Cienfuegos. One night, I hung around Carteles waiting for a friend while drinking a frosty white ceramic teacup full of frozen daiquiri: lime juice, sugar, and rum dispensed from a humming machine. It was a wonderful antidote to the heat—tart, sweet, and without much of a boozy kick. Or so I thought. “You can’t tell, but there is a lot of rum in there,” said the woman behind the counter.
Sure enough, when my friend arrived and we headed up the industrial staircase to Cienfuegos, I went a little warm and woozy. We emerged into a room that only amplified the effect. It’s Alice in Wonderland meets Hemingway-era Cuba—turquoise walls, wrought iron–work, glass tchotchkes, brass candlesticks, giant white-leather banquettes, and worn shutters over the windows. A second, smaller room is acid pink and flowery. The female servers wear colorful aprons and A-line skirts, ’50s-housewife-style, like Betty Draper in a better mood. All of it is purposefully distressed, simulated decay. Everyone is drinking a bit too much, eating a bit too little, in a happy, bright, rum-soaked way. It can get loud. “I’ve definitely made out with a guy like that, but I’ve never dated a guy like that!” shrieked a girl at the table next to us in a pitch usually reserved for air-raid sirens.
Cienfuegos and Carteles are co-owned by Ravi DeRossi, who controls an East Village mini-empire: cocktail bar Death & Co., tequila den Mayahuel, unorthodox cevicheria Desnuda, wine boudoir the Bourgeois Pig, plus Greenwich Village’s subterranean fancy beer bar 124 Rabbit Club. If there’s a whiff of the trendy and calculating about these places, they’re also interestingly and beautifully designed, from concepts to interiors: You can sit at Desnuda and watch the chef smoke your oysters with a bong, or lounge at Mayahuel and drink a cocktail made with jalapeño tequila, mescal, and chocolate mole bitters. DeRossi is now working on a new place called Gin Palace, a twist on the original Victorian dive bars. He’s turning downtown into a kind of Epcot Center of drinking.
Cienfuegos is named after a Cuban port town, which itself was named after one of that country’s governor-generals. The cocktail menu runs longer than the food menu, but that’s clearly the point—this is a drinking destination that happens to serve some competent food, not the other way around. The cocktails were dreamed up by Charlotte Voisey and Jane Danger and are divided into categories like fizzes, “big and bold,” “the spice of life,” and “Papa’s list”—a reference to Hemingway, a section that includes the classic daiquiri. You can order these offerings by the single cocktail, or in punch bowls serving two, four, or six.
Cienfuegos’ potent champagne cocktails are particularly delicious: The Alabazam punch mixes up 12-year-old rum, maraschino liquor, Lillet Rouge, and bitters, topped with bubbly. There’s a lot going on in that goblet, but it all comes together with an almost magical intensity. Alternatively, the Vesperone—rum, rye, green chartreuse, lime, sage, and champagne—tastes pleasantly bitter-edged and darkly complex.
The food is the work of Luis Gonzales, also of Death & Co. and Mayahuel. Though some of the plates are depressingly dull, others are pretty tasty and ably satisfy a stomach swimming with punch.
One of the better options is costillas, or pork ribs, supposedly glazed with habanero and guava. (The sauce is pleasantly sweet-salty, but lacks that chile’s burn.) The ribs are substantial and extremely tender, nearly meat pudding, and come with tostones—plantains that have been fried, squashed flat, and fried again. They’re wonderfully crisp and greaseless. Use the salty, starchy disks to wipe up the remaining sauce and pork drippings.
Drunken shrimp are satisfying: fat crustaceans in a cilantro-flecked sauce that’s tart and zippy with rum, sliced jalapeños, and a huge amount of garlic. A bed of sweet plantain mash mellows the dish out; bites of the acidic sauce mixed into the plantains are tastier than anything else at Cienfuegos. Albondigas—lamb and beef meatballs—have an unpleasantly rubbery bounce, but arrive soaking in a deliciously sweet-and-spicy roasted tomato and habanero sauce. (There’s the heat, finally.)
But you’d have to be pretty sloshed to really enjoy some of the other dishes. An octopus ceviche is adequate, made with tender cephalopod, hearts of palm, tomatoes, and avocadoes, but it certainly isn’t worth $22. Limp vegetable empanadas might as well have come from Trader Joe’s freezer, and a crab gratin is overly fishy. A bowl of fried plantain chips with a teensy dish of guacamole should not cost $8. Choripan—popovers with cheese and chorizo cooked into the batter—would have been excellent drinking snacks were they not dried out and lukewarm by the time they got to us.
For some reliably good eats at fairer prices, you’re better off ordering a sandwich downstairs at Carteles (some of which can also be ordered at Cienfuegos). The marquee Cubano is judiciously constructed—thin layers of roast pork, ham, provolone, pickles, and garlicky yellow mustard, pressed into crisp submission. If you’re really starving, try the Cubano cristo, which is the Cubano dipped in egg and fried. It’s the apotheosis of drinking food.
But on balance, you can’t help feeling amicably about Cienfuegos. (Maybe it’s the punch.) It’s a beautiful room in which to guzzle interesting rum cocktails, a spot to bring your out-of-town friends to show them how exuberant and imaginative New York can be.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 4, 2010