Belle Bottom Blues
Belle Havana packs them in with flashes of brilliance and despite major inconsistencies.
By Julia Sexton
Belle Havana is a frustrating restaurant to review. We truly wanted to love this restaurant because there is so much to love at Belle Havana. Every time we visited, we were charmed by the restaurant’s relaxed mood, enhanced by owners Chef Alexandre Cheblal and wife Stella Rodriguez Cheblal, who lend the room their personal attention. (He’s French, she’s Cuban, hence the restaurant’s French-Cuban theme.) Belle Havana feels like an intimate family restaurant, where the Cheblals greet many of their customers by name. After dinner, you’ll often find the couple relaxing over a glass or two with friends and regulars. We loved Belle Havana’s mixed-age and multi-cultural clientele, and we appreciated its urbane serving hours. It’s a warm and welcoming place: this restaurant has a great vibe.
Yet this is where a reviewer’s job gets tough. Even though Belle Havana was often packed, there were oversight problems that were just too numerous to ignore—this is a restaurant with management issues. Dishes and drinks consistently took too long to arrive, and there were regular service errors throughout all three of our meals. While each slip was inconsequential, taken together they suggest a more serious lack of focus—cutlery and bread plates went missing or were not reset, water was not replenished, drinks were ordered (and charged) but never appeared. These were saddening events, because as much as we love Belle Havana, we knew we’d have to relay those problems here.
Our Friday-night dinner started off, as usual, with drink orders. We chose the restaurant’s Mojitos, then immediately ordered starters and mains. And then we waited. And waited. Nothing appeared for half an hour, though our mortified waiter visited periodically to apologize. Finally, our starters came, but no drinks. Apparently, on this packed Friday night, there was a single bartender muddling the Mojitos. The Mojitos, when they came (just as we were polishing off our starters), were actually wonderful. These are truly the best in Westchester—with lime and mint bruised and bashed to within an inch of their lives, an oft-skipped step that releases their floral notes—but at that point, we were well past appreciating the effort. Nor were our appetizers without fault. Our delicate, sushi-grade tuna ceviche had become mush with over-marination, and, while my picadera paisano from the tapas menu was tasty (with Serrano ham, manchego cheese, olives, and grilled Catalan bread), I’d have liked it a whole lot better 20 minutes earlier.
The overly long wait for food was fairly consistent throughout our meals, which was perplexing because we’d often see Chef Cheblal in the dining room greeting guests or chatting with the musicians who provide live music on the weekends. We wondered as we waited, “Shouldn’t he be in the kitchen, making sure that food was getting out?”
Other appetizers and tapas were better. We loved the tapas menu’s addictive codfish fritters with their tart and creamy tartar sauce, while our delicious grilled chorizo arrived striped with grill marks, smoky and deeply soulful. Only two salads disappointed: our watermelon-and-goat cheese salad was so aggressively lemony that it stung our puckered lips, while the lettuce bed beneath our otherwise tasty goat cheese/caramelized onion bruschetti suffered from the same acerbic slip-up.
Mains were frustratingly inconsistent, though it’s clear that the kitchen has flashes of brilliance. Our Cuban skirt steak with yucca mash and sautéed peppers and onions was a perfect dish, definitely worth another visit. The tender, thin steak was bathed in a beefy, garlicky wine sauce that added the perfect contrast to smooth, buttery yucca mash. A roasted Cornish hen arrived with its thin skin perfectly crisped under a peppery, garlicky coating—we ate it with relish right off the bone. But while its partner of roasted new potatoes in fines herbes was fine, the dish’s bland, watery, overcooked green beans would have been better left off the plate.
There were a few disasters. On our star-crossed Friday night visit, our paella arrived so dried out that it was crunchy, with desiccated chicken pieces, rubber shrimp and lobster, and leathery mussels that smelled slightly off. And though the Westchester section of the New York Times nominated Belle Havana’s frites as the best in the county, when we visited they were limp and soggy. The frites accompanied the tapas menu’s equally disappointing Cubano sandwich, which was just begging for help from more mustard and pickle.
Yet despite the inconsistencies, Belle Havana’s desserts won us back. Our favorite was a warm, tropical take on bread pudding, made with coconut, dulce de leche, and vanilla ice cream. We also liked our Key lime tart, a special, made with a thick, delicious brown-butter crust and a pleasantly not-too-sweet filling. The dessert menu thoughtfully pairs sweets with intriguing and on-message after-dinner drinks, like Rozes white port, sauternes, and the homemade Mamajuana rum.
There is room to believe that the Cheblals both know about and are currently addressing the problems at Belle Havana: they are rumored to be interviewing a couple to fill Chef and General Manager positions, with an eye toward expansion to New York City. These new hires sound like just the ticket to make Belle Havana what it ought to be—a jewel in the Yonkers’ crown.
Want to check out Belle Havana’s new winter lunch and dinner menus? Visit westchestermagazine.com’s Restaurant Guide. Belle Havana typically updates its menu offerings with the changing seasons—between two to four times a year.
35 Main St, Yonkers
(914) 969-1006; www.bellehavana.com
Hours: lunch Tues to Fri 12-3 pm; dinner Tues to Thurs 5:30-11 pm, Fri and Sat 5:30-12 am, Sun 5:30-10 pm. Appetizers: $7-$16; entrées: $19-$29; desserts: $7.
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good