There are times when a restaurant is more than the sum of its parts.
The food, atmosphere, and service, when examined individually, don’t seem like much, but when taken as a package, the place beckons you back.
La Bella Havana is the latest restaurant to occupy the corner of Main Street and Riverdale Avenue in Yonkers—the location that used to be home to the similarly (and confusingly) named Belle Havana. The current restaurant has new owners and more traditional Cuban fare. (Belle Havana served Cuban-French food and was owned by the same restaurateurs who gave us Bistro Chartreuse in that same space.)
But enough about real estate; let’s get to the heart of the place. Better still: its friendly, with a slightly sexy soul. The welcoming vibe comes from the warm Latino beat, closely nestled tables that coerce you into conversation with (former) strangers, and plates piled astonishingly high with food.
Don’t allow the portions to dissuade you from scarfing down at least a few of the long, golden, sweet-and-salty plantain chips—the perfect vessel for a scoop of the piquant black-bean dip served to every table. There are several good choices for starters: one of our favorites was a virtuous pineapple-and-avocado salad served over greens with just enough sweet, tangy mango dressing. Empanadas filled with moist, spicy shredded chicken are more traditional—and the flaky pastry crust was well worth the indulgence.
We couldn’t dine in a Cuban restaurant without at least trying the Cuban, a traditional pressed sandwich made with pernil (slow-roasted pork), Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. Our friendly, though decidedly unpolished server (whom one dinner companion described as “rough around the edges”), suggested we order one to share, so we had the kitchen cut this Cuban ode to the panini into thin strips. The meat was tender, and the sandwich was bursting with the flavors of the rich meat and cheese, offset by the bite of the pickles and mustard and the crunch of the pressed bread.
Classic Cuban cooking didn’t fare as well in a starter of three kinds of chicharrón. While chicharrón is really fried pork rind, in this version, the same basic cooking method was also applied to longaniza (spicy, chorizo-like pork sausage) and chicken. The huge portion of fried meats would easily have served six—if we had eaten it. Sadly, the meats had been fried nearly out of existence; all that remained were dried chunks of indistinguishable, chewy meat.
We didn’t do any better with the fried seafood platter—also an enormous portion meant to be shared as an appetizer. The calamari, though thankfully not greasy, were chewy from spending too much time in the fryer; the shrimp also were overcooked. The fish, which we were told was snapper, had the muskiness of day-old catfish. The fried yucca on the plate, however, was perfect.
Not all things fried were over-fried. Coconut shrimp were crisp, golden, and sweet. The inherent shrimp flavor and firm, snappy texture were perfect under a crunchy crust of coconut. The shrimp were lovely without the mango dipping sauce, which shrouded the sea flavor in a cloak of sugar.
Sweet corn fritters came to the table about 10 minutes after the other appetizers because, the waitress told us, “The chef left something out of the last batch, and they fell apart in the fryer.” Hmm…too much information to share with the diners (even if they weren’t reviewers). When the fritters finally arrived, they barely held together and tasted like sweet and somewhat greasy corn zeppole.
But among the missteps were plenty of gems. The deep, earthy black-bean soup is reason enough to return to La Bella Havana. The pernil, cooked until it nearly falls apart on your fork and the meaty flavor is concentrated, is another. (It doesn’t hurt that sweet maduros and well-seasoned black beans and rice accompany it.) The skirt steak is also robustly flavorful, thanks in part to the garlic mojo and onion-and-pepper topping. And then, too, there is the aforementioned, nearly perfect Cubano.
We will not give the enormous paella another chance. We tried it twice, and both times we could still taste the saffron hours after dinner. It is a shame, too, because the seafood was nicely cooked, and we would have liked to have enjoyed the chorizo and vegetables as well. One order could easily feed four people for dinner.Nevertheless, leave room for dessert. Wet, rich, tres leches cake was sinfully sweet but not cloying, and a milk-chocolate mousse cake disappeared in seconds. And the batata pie, a cross between sweet potato pie and custard, caused a sword-fight of forks reaching across the table.
The food was uneven, for sure, but there were many wonderful, lusty dishes. The service was friendly, though (to put it kindly) under-trained. Still, La Bella Havana has a feel-good vibe that makes the place comfortable, easy, and a bit scintillating.
La Bella Havana
35 Main St, Yonkers
Hours: Mon to Wed 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs 11:30 a.m.-midnight, Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-4 a.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Appetizers: $6-$20; entrées: $12-$25; desserts: $6.95; bar menu: $7-$12