'Every time I eat here, I feel like I'm in uncharted territory!" said the giddy woman in her country-club whites as a plate sprouting plantain chips like butterfly wings settled before her on the porch at Casona. "And I've been here already, like - five times?"
New restaurants aren't usually a novelty for Collingswood, the fantasy Main Street of South Jersey's culinary ambitions. But places that exude even a whiff of authenticity here are rare. There's a handful of nice Italians - Nunzio's, Sapori, and Bistro di Marino - but their fare is so familiar they don't count. Meanwhile, the neighborhood's red-hot "ethnic" stop - the Tortilla Press - is about as gringo as Mexican gets.
So forgive me a little skepticism when I heard that Collingswood had landed a Cuban kitchen. My expectations were further dampened by the fact that Casona's co-owner, Larry Grillo, had opened the uninspiring Mixto in Washington Square West a few years back.
But that was then. After three surprising meals at Casona - slang for "big house" - Grillo has earned my respect. And if you manage to snag a seat beneath the turning fans on the grand porch that wraps around this white clapboard manse, you can almost feel a Caribbean breeze drifting off Haddon Avenue.
That's some trick, considering this Victorian-looking building was a doctor's office for most of the last century. But after 18 months of renovations, Grillo and his partners, Mark and Michele Infantado, and architect Keith Haberon have given Collingswood's dining scene a seductive Cuban venue.
The wide outside porch has become a runway for the area's beautiful people to strut and be seen, their martini glasses brimming with shrimp seviche, their pitchers filled with bring-your-own-rum mojitos (not on the menu but available for $12). The 70-seat interior dining rooms are also handsome (and noisy) in the manner of a polished home, warmed by a fireplace and hardwood floors, and photography from Cuba hung on walls the color of deep red guava and yellow flan.
Ultimately, though, Casona owes its convincing Latin groove to the kitchen, where chef Carmelo Petit brings both the feeling of his Venezuelan roots and the culinary polish of several years at the Four Seasons in Caracas and Philadelphia.
The result is not quite "Nuevo Latino," as Casona touts it, but quite traditional preparations recast in contemporary ways.
Slow-roasted shreds of pulled pork (lechon asado), tender and tangy from bitter orange mojo, come molded over a pedestal of saffron rice beneath a scalloped lid of sweet maduro plantains. Plantain chips and colorful chopped peppers festoon a martini glass like streamers and confetti, but the shrimp seviche inside is as classic as it gets, the tender shrimp tart with a simple but zippy citrus marinade.
And when you take a bite of fried yucca - its steaming-hot white flesh crisped into deeply ridged lines of crunch - it's clear the kitchen knows what to do with its Latin tubers. Pass the garlicky white mojo dip!
If Casona has a significant flaw, it would be the limited appetizer choices, which tend to simply recast the hearty entree stews in smaller variations.
The mariquitas are essentially a plantain-chip version of nachos heaped with melted cheese, roast pork and ground beef picadillo. It's odd, but undeniably delicious. The same goes for the Habana maduro, which brings a sweet ripe plantain stuffed with piquant picadillo that puts some salsa into the old banana split.
Petit does make some nice big salads, like the fresh plume of romaine for the Caesar that is wrapped in a band of Serrano ham alongside goat-cheese-smeared toasts. I also enjoyed the simple purity of the black bean soup, although it could have used a few more watts of garlic punch from the subtle soffrito. The black beans were at their best when blended with rice into arroz moro, whose roasty, almost chocolatey depth offered the perfect contrast to some of the brighter dishes.
Rice dishes were among Petit's best. His arroz con pollo was a mound of tender chicken bits tossed with yellow rice, but it was wonderfully flavored with beer, and studded with cuminy chorizo, tangy green olives, and sweet peppers. The seafood paella looked similar, but tasted completely different, its wonderfully moist rice infused with lobster stock and a heaping of seafood - lobster, clams, scallops and shrimp - that wasn't overcooked.
Casona is also a carnivore's delight. There is a respectable beef ropa vieja (though I prefer the lechon). And the filet mignon was also a perfectly fine steak for the less adventurous, served with thyme-scented gravy and mashed potatoes. The grilled churrasco skirt steak, though, was fabulous, crackling with the savor of its rosemary-olive oil marinade next to fried yucca and a wild mushroom ragout. At $18, it's a better deal than the filet, as long as you ignore the chimichurri dip oversweetened with balsamic vinegar.
The balsamic, I assume, is Casona's token "nuevo" touch, but it's totally unnecessary. Perhaps some ambitious new menu additions, like tuna with ginger-citrus sauce, won't be overwrought.
Casona might put some extra effort into its desserts; the less-than-creamy flans especially need work. All I need, though, is a cafe con leche and a slice of the tres leches, a milk-soaked layer cake that sat like a cool island in a pool of sweet cream. It wasn't an uncharted island, but it disappeared in a flash of forks.