It's been a busy three years for Marta Ines Quintana, owner of Towson's Havana Road.
There's her thriving catering business, a line of fully prepared packaged dinners Quintana developed for supermarket sales, and a cookbook and television show — both are works in progress that will showcase traditional Cuban restaurants as well as Quintana's contemporary spins on them.
You might think all of that would distract Quintana from the restaurant itself — a bright spot on a drab Pennsylvania Avenue dining strip. But Quintana is a force of nature.
Her cafe is just fine. Havana Road was at capacity and then some on a recent Friday night. If you plan on going on a weekend, make reservations, and make stop along the way to pick up some beer or a bottle of wine. Havana Road has a BYOB policy, which helps to keep dinner there an affordable affair.
There are elegant touches in Havana Road's dining room, things like ornate lighting fixtures, fresh flowers and framed photographs of Cuban street scenes that make it a suitable spot for dating couples, for parents who have managed to find a baby sitter and for groups of friends who want to catch up over dinner.
It's a haven, and Havana Road reminded me a little of Orchard Market & Cafe, the nearby Persian restaurant that's built up an intensely loyal following that's almost like a secret society.
With no trouble at all, you can find a dish at Havana Road that becomes an instant personal favorite, something you can look forward to every time you come back for a visit.
It might be Quintana's preparation of ropa vieja, a traditional dish of pulled meat (in this case, brisket) simmered until tender in a white wine and tomato sauce. Ropa vieja — it's name translates as "old clothes" — can be a heavy dish, and it doesn't immediately suggest itself as a fitting entree for a chic cafe setting, but at Havana Road, it's both light and polished-looking, served with the house's expertly prepared black beans and white rice.
Or your new favorite might be an appetizer like camarones al ajillo, firm and fresh-tasting shrimp served in a sizzling brandy-garlic sauce, which should be spoken of in the same mop-up-the-sauce conversation as Tio Pepe's shrimp in garlic sauce. But Quintana's version is jazzier than Tio Pepe's, and brighter, too.
Light and bright are hallmarks of Havana Road's cooking. Basically, Quintana is starting with authentic Cuban recipes and rethinking them for diners who want fresh, healthy ingredients. Quintana is an advocate of the wild-caught, the grass-fed, the free-range and the antibiotic- and hormone-free.
And so, suddenly Cuban cuisine is not only delicious, it feels healthy, too. And you can feast on appetizers like hummus, plantains, empanadas and shrimp, and entrees like slow-cooked pork and broiled fish, and still have room for homemade desserts, which are too good to do without —flan in flavors like coconut and guava, a tres leches cake and a rum cake that packs a punch.
Among the appetizers we tried, the standouts were the camarones and the crispy-edged, pleasurably salty plantains, which Quintana twice-bakes — they reminded me of potato pancakes — and serves with the menu's ever-present mojo sauce, her take on the classic Cuban sauce of garlic, onion, citrus and olive oil.
That sauce did wonderful things to the catch of the day, which was a rarely seen variety of freshwater flounder with the pliable flavor and delicate texture of tilapia. Some people look down on mild fish, confusing it with blandness. But Havana Road shows how to bring out the best qualities in a mild fish and flatters it with skinny, snappy asparagus, sweet fried plantains and aromatic rice.
We enjoyed the other things we tried, including a trio of traditional, red pepper and black bean hummus; golden-edged empanadas stuffed with savory beef; and the lechon assado, the entree of slow-roasted pork braised in white wine, but there are other things on the menu we want to try next time. In other words, we'd throw them over for a shot at the croquettes filled with ham and chorizo, the scallops in brandy sauce and the paella.
Basically, we have some catching up to do here.
Where: 8 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson
Contact: 410-494-8222, havanaroad.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $4-$11.50; entrees $16-$25
Food: Traditional and contemporary Cuban food
Service: Friendly and brisk
Best dishes: Shrimp in brandy garlic sauce, ropa vieja; citrus-marinated catch of the day
Parking/accessibility: On-street parking, with garage and lot options
Noise level/televisions: The noise level grows with the crowd and can get buzzy; there are no televisions
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]