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Running on Empty

Cuba Libre conjures up a new Cuban cuisine.

Empty restaurants make me nervous, skittish, worried that everyone knows something I don't. I always get the feeling that I missed the ambulances or the SWAT team by a few minutes -- that some weird action cleared the place out just prior to my arrival. Empty movie theaters affect me the same way. So does coming home to an unexpectedly empty house. I fret about what happened while I wasn't there, what drove everyone else away. And as I pull into the parking lot in front of Cuba Libre, I wonder why the parking lots of the Applebee's and Village Inn across the street are so full and this one is so...not.

I've been here before, and it was even quieter then -- because as it turned out, Cuba Libre had dumped its lunch service without warning, leaving me stranded on the far side of Littleton with a hunger for fried plantains and rum-soaked barbecued ribs and nowhere to go.

So this time, I'd called before making the drive to make sure the restaurant hadn't decided to cancel dinner service as well, and to ask if I needed a reservation and how late the place would be open. The girl on the phone politely told me that a reservation wouldn't be necessary and that she wasn't sure how late Cuba Libre would be serving. She said it depended on whether anyone showed up. It had been slow for the last couple of days, she explained, but they were expecting things to pick up again soon.

Executive chef John Daly III lines up lamb chops at 
Cuba Libre.
Mark Manger
Executive chef John Daly III lines up lamb chops at Cuba Libre.

Location Info

Map

Cuba Libre Bistro & Wine Bar

12684 W. Indore Place
Littleton, CO 80127

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs

Details

12684 West Indore Place, Littleton, 303- 904-3707. Hours: 4 p.m.-close daily

Empanadas: $8
Shrimp-stuffed calamari: $12
Croquets: $6
Tamales: $12
Lobster ceviche: $15< br>Pork chops: $18
Lamb: $28
Ropa vieja: $15
Stuffed chicken: $18

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Now, as Laura and I get out of the car, we do detect some signs of life. Soft light spills out onto the sidewalk, and I can hear muffled accordion music. We step inside, and the space is warm, welcoming, huge -- the kind of size you feel as a falling-away of perspective, skin tingling at the sudden sensation of needing to be much larger just to fill the available area. I won't even guess at its maximum capacity, because Cuba Libre is so big there's no one place you can stand or sit and see the whole space -- unless maybe you're hung on wires from the distant ceiling. There are two floors (three, if you count the I Zen sushi bar in the basement, and I'm not, because out of sight, out of mind), but the first has no ceiling, which creates a mezzanine area on the second floor, a balcony-style arrangement running around the pit of the bar, the open space rising way up to the raw-wood rafters, up to a vaulted ceiling that's painted red and covered with twisty water pipes and HVAC ductwork. The main dining room is carved up into two sections -- booth seating along the walls and table seating around the bar -- and there are staircases and railings, potted plants, pictures hung crooked on the walls, and very cool, very antique-looking fans with woven paddles in place of blades and belt-driven motors to keep them turning. It's custom work, and a very nice touch. Owners Inhui Oh and Russel Evans picked up the shell of this building when it was still only half done, and I cannot imagine what it cost them to finish it, what they paid for the faux-antique fan mechanisms and what kind of premium they must have shelled out to the plumbers who ran the water lines up to that cathedral ceiling to bring the sprinkler system up to code.

It's a shame that only a dozen people are in the house to appreciate all this good work -- and that includes the two hostesses crowding each other at the stand, huddled over a book devoid of reservations and a large stack of hardbound menus, and a bartender craning her neck to read the closed-captioning on the expensive flat-screen TVs hung over the bar.

Big spaces will always be crippled by a lack of bodies. That's just geometry. Or physics. Whatever. In a small place, three seated parties might make a dining room feel cozy, even intimate, to a fourth just entering. But in a big room, three tables make the space feel even emptier than if there were none. And even if Cuba Libre were half full, it would still feel almost empty. Laura and I are seated in a plush, upholstered booth against the wall, with windows looking out across the patio (another dozen-odd tables there) and down the hill at Applebee's. We are given water, menus, wine lists. It's odd that cocktails aren't listed anywhere -- just wines, by the glass and by the bottle -- but our server makes suggestions. We order beer and mojitos, trying to get in the mood, trying to give the bartender something to do. And then we start looking over the menu.

It's a great menu, full and well-rounded. Like the best menus -- the ones written by Pepin and Waters and Waxman and that lot -- it reads like poetry, full of allusion and metaphor and a whole lot of words I don't know. There is evidence of rigorous French training and an understanding of Cuban cuisine both as it exists today and as it could exist if not for the fact that Cuban culinary history pretty much stopped on the island around 1959. It is fusion in the best possible way, fusing Cuban food not with some other cuisine, but with an imagined version of itself, and it is as interesting a board of fare as I have seen in quite a while. It is also expensive -- but at Cuba Libre, we soon learn, you get what you pay for.

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