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The marble-sized brown globule on the edge of the plate looked like shoemaker's adhesive, or perhaps the product of a Lilliputian cow. Even after gingerly tasting it, I had no idea what it was. Nor did the waitress, but having fetched and consulted the menu, she concluded it was "your anchovy mayo".
Why I should be blamed I don't know, but when she said it was to be applied to the flank steak or the salad, as I wished, I felt a stab of existential despair at the vagueness of it all. The salad - an iceberg lettuce cup with tiny capsicum dice, such as one might find in the Westport RSA - was beyond rescue, and the agreeably chewy steak needed nothing. I left it.
There are many good reasons to go to Cuba; the food is not one of them. More than 10 years ago, I endured chicken deep-fried in rancid oil and bony fish sandwiches, and the Professor picked up a notifiable disease. Online reports suggest that things have not improved.
So it seemed odd that this place, down a lane behind the shops near Victoria Ave, was using the Havana brand. The "Little" in the name may seek to evoke the Miami neighbourhood that is home to Cuban exiles, but the interior trades on a Cuban connection: the pictures on the walls are the cliched clapped-out 50s Chevrolets, and a blackboard mission statement mentions the capital's most famous American resident, Ernest Hemingway, a man more noted for his thirst than his hunger.
The menu lists dishes never seen in Cuba, either because they are not even faintly Latino-Caribbean (salmon fillet, shrimp risotto) or because they are, on paper at least, edible.
I was impressed by the service even before I arrived, when the woman who took my booking warned that they would be chocka and wait times would be long. Such forethought is rare. But the kitchen's performance made it hard to understand the place's popularity, even in a suburb famously short of decent dining options.
The website advertises "modern American tapas" (whatever they are) but there was no sign of them. The menu, which appears to change weekly, listed some attractive options and gave us a good chuckle about how the document's only apostrophe had migrated from the pigs tail to the chicken scratching's.
But things fell apart once they reached the table. "Roasted" beetroot, which bore no trace of roasting and tasted suspiciously like it had come from a can, was paired with cottage cheese and pecans into a dish of surpassing characterlessness. The aforementioned scratchings - big slivers of crisp skin - bore a fiery chilli taste which eradicated everything else, but the chilli cream that came with it was positively anodyne. Similarly, the meat in a Caribbean-style goat stew was deliciously tender, but the dish's spiciness was restrained to a fault.
Desserts included some sort of special involving labneh (strained yoghurt) and a fruit I didn't make a note of, spread across the plate to look like the aftermath of a grisly traffic accident (an impression heightened by wafers of black and white sesame seeds that resembled tarmac rubble and tasted of asphalt). "Deep-fried" apple pies were leathery little empanadas with a mean-spirited swab of apple inside each, though the icecream was excellently cold.
This may be a great place for a Cohiba and mojito - calling the patch of lawn outside Remuera Green is probably not as silly in summer as it seems right now - but the food varies from bad to worse. In that sense, it's authentically Cuban.
• Entrees/tapas: $14-18; mains $24-$32; desserts $13
Verdict: Second-rate food in pleasant surroundings
By Joelle Thomson - joellethomson.com
A bunch of great whites
A train, a tasting and a long lunch sound like the ultimate ingredients for a fun afternoon so my only regret at an unusually delicious wine tasting was that I had not left the car at home.
The wines at this one were extensive, thanks to Clive Weston, head honcho of Negociants NZ, which celebrated its 30th year. The tasting began with Bolly, that superstar champagne made from grand cru (first class) vineyards in Ay, in the Champagne region's Vallee de la Marne. Put its quality down to the vineyards, but its distinctive flavours also come from the winemaking, which incorporates oak. My highlights included:
• 2014 Tio Pepe Fino En Rama,
• Jerez Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee NV,
• 2009 Hugel & Fils Riesling Jubilee, Alsace,
• 1997 Marc Bredit Vouvray, Grande Annee, Loire Valley (still available for about $90 a bottle; not bad for a 14-year-old French vin),
• 2013 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay, Australia,
• 2010 d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz, McLaren Vale,
• 2009 Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz, Clare Valley,
• 2008 Bodegas Beronia Rioja Reserva,
• 2007 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena, Ribera del Duero, Spain,
• 2012 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico,
• 2013 Weingut Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett.