The headaches began right away. Blame the frozen daiquiris. We were at Carteles, a cheap, downstairs, 10-seat sandwich shop in Manhattan’s East Village that doubles as a waiting room for Cienfuegos, the bigger, more expensive rum bar upstairs, hawking $120 bowls of highly spiked punch.
Carteles/Cienfuegos, brainchild of Ravi DeRossi, offer respite from the cocktail dens of the late 2000s -- places like Death & Co., Rossi’s own joint.
So, no martinis here. And no Manhattans. Contemplate that over those frozen daiquiris, which to be fair aren’t crummy coed cocktails but, rather, true to the spirit of Cuba’s tart alternative to air conditioning.
I ask the bartender what else she can make.
“Rum and coke,” she replies.
She pulls the handle on a frozen-drink machine. Out comes green slush. It fills up tea cups. It’s a classy drink, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, not one of those syrupy concoctions in a souvenir cup for fanny packers at Six Flags. This is lime juice, sugar, rum, period, meant to counter the salt and fat of a Cubano (ham, roast pork and fresh pickles on pressed bread). Fried plantain chips scorch the tongue with chilis. So you reach for the daiquiri and sip.
Cuba Via Vegas
With the icy daiquiri, a brain freeze prevents more than a few sips at a time. Then the host declares your upstairs table at Cienfuegos is ready.
Ascend to a pink-couched room beckoning to the right; painted teal walls to the left. Off-white “Alice in Wonderland” chairs have high backs to prop up the heads of the woozy.
It’s ever so-slightly theme-parkesque, sometimes a New York riff on Cuba or Cartagena, sometimes New York imitating a Vegas hotel imitating Cuba or Cartagena, except with better beverages at tri-state prices. Cienfuegos is a date place; punch, after all, is date food minus the food.
Start with a take on the pina colada. Don’t be embarrassed: none of the drinks are cloying or unbalanced, so you may as well have some faux-tropical fun. There’s a dose of good Haitian rum. Then a bit of coconut puree and tamarind for a hint of sweet, a bit more pineapple and lime for a dose of sour.
Next, move onto a punch bowl -- the cocktail version of a porterhouse for two. Just as a single slice of meat wouldn’t suffice, a single daiquiri seems to invite two. The bowl is big and only slightly classier than a pitcher. Sadly, unlike a half-eaten steak, the leftovers can’t go into a doggy bag.
Move to the Port of Mischief: Sailor Jerry spiced rum with tawny port, Velvet Falernum and grapefruit. Pair it with another Cubano or meaty chorizo and chickpea hash. The substandard Latino-Caribbean fare is incidental, just like substandard cocktails are incidental at high end culinary joints. So skip the gritty tamales and indistinct crab dip. Chorizo and cheese popovers? Overcooked. Lamb chops? Well-done and under-seasoned. Dry, skimpy pork ribs need salt too.
Order a bowl of silky, bitter, addictive Cuban Angel “El Cobre” ($35 for two, $68 for four, $110 for six). Its mix of Scarlet Ibis rum, Armagnac, Solerno, orange bitters and lemon syrup impart aroma, pucker and power. Then, for a tongue-coating mouthfeel, the bartender fortifies the Angel with almond syrup, egg white and apricot jam. It’s something you might pour over pancakes at Denny’s (and I mean that as a compliment) for a breakfast with perfect acid-balance. Just avoid the mushy Sloppy Joe sliders that evoke a fast food disaster.
In a nod to collegiate courtship, pursuers ladle their mates with heavy handed pours, so beware. Pacing is tough and just a single giant cube chills the potion, meaning little watery dilution. An evil-genius touch. And as we bobble down the stairs to leave, the prospect of just one more frozen daiquiri calls to us.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Under $50 per person.
Sound Level? Very loud, around 80 decibels.
Date place? Friends don’t share punch, dates do.
Inside tip: Forgettable beef empanadas are a pass; the garlicky, mojo sauce-spiked shrimp are a must.
Special feature? Cash only downstairs.
Will I be back? Frequently.
Cienfuegos and Carteles are at 443 E. 6th St., near Avenue A. Telephone (for Cienfuegos): +1-212-614-6818.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)