Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Caña's Split Personality

The Lake Merritt restaurant serves both "authentic" and multiculti Cuban cuisine.

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Nothing is authentic anymore." These are not the words of an angst-addled teenager, lashing out at poseurs and copycats. Neither is it the thesis from a dissertation on post-modern literature. No, these are the curious sentiments of Diego Salinas, chef at Grand Lake's newish Cuban restaurant, Caña.

Salinas' words have an especially odd cadence when you factor in Caña's tagline, "The Bay Area's only authentic Cuban restaurant venue." But consider the source: After emigrating from Colombia, Salinas graduated from the French-influenced California Culinary Academy, and he's worked more than twenty years in various ethnic mash-up restaurants (Miss Pearl's Jam House, Asia de Cuba). The food at his most recent stint, Circolo in San Francisco, was "Nuevo Latino with an Asian twist."

Salinas rejects the term "authentic" because he's witnessed how fluid global cuisine can be. Cultures migrate, non-native ingredients are introduced, chefs improvise, and every day new sacraments are born. If you worry too much about following tradition, you could miss your chance to make improvements.

That's why Salinas is conflicted. On one hand, his employers are carving out a niche in an underserved category: real-deal Cuban street food (the kind purists won't bitch about on Chowhound). On the other hand, he's itchy to play ethnic alchemist, adding squid ink, ginger and lobster hash to his ropa vieja and lechon asado. Luckily, this duality can be accommodated.

Caña is divvied into two adjacent restaurants, with a clearly demarcated menu, style, size, and ambience. On the left is Caña Parlor, whose dark, roomy expanse is perked up with a handful of crude and splashy Latin-ish paintings. A long bar lines the center, the bartender wears a tropical shirt and a newsboy hat, and rows of small-batch tequilas beckon from a mirrored perch. It's a clean rendition of a seamy Cuban nightspot; you can picture the overhead fans on a lazy spin, while heated dancers (dressed all in white, natch) press the flesh below. Havana Nights fantasies aside, it's where you go for a low-lit date, to sample what happens when Salinas' imagination runs unchecked.

On the right is Caña Café, a tiny daytime space with exposed brick and bright-blue fiesta walls. For breakfast you can get a light Latin pastry and Blue Bottle pour-over, and there's a short list of traditional Cuban street foods for lunch. The cafe is bright and airy, opening onto a streetside patio. Many patrons — especially on farmers' market days — order food to go.

Salinas champs at the bit to display his culinary savoir-faire, but the cafe's simplest food is also its most successful. Take that familiar old dog, the Cuban sandwich: shreds of marinated pork butt, crisp on the edges but not too dry, thinly sliced ham, a blanket of half-melted Swiss, and a trio of pickle spears raising the top of the house-baked pan Cubano. The bottom of the sandwich wicked too much moisture from the pork, but it was a minor blemish.

One of Caña's empanadas was filled with a traditional ground beef picadillo, cooked in tomato and pepper sofrito sauce and mixed with olives and raisins. The veggie version deftly mimicked beef's texture with a blend of portabello, crimini, and button mushrooms; more than one suspicious vegetarian has demanded reassurance they're not eating meat. Both empanadas were moist and familiarly spiced (cumin, garlic, sherry), with scallop-edged, feathery crusts.

The buttermilk-soaked, Cuban fried chicken was another rousing success. After marinating in a traditional garlic-based mojo sauce, the jerk-spiced chicken pieces were breaded and quick-fried, a perfectly seasoned wedding of crisp and juicy. Scavengers would find little sustenance after I finished working those bones.

Possibly a victim of Salinas' excess ambition, or maybe still finding its footing (the parlor is a newer addition), Caña's dinner menu was less surefooted. There wasn't much oomph in the $7 black bean bisque, save for a hint of cumin and cacao. A jiggling mass of slow-braised oxtail was cast into a thick pool of sofrito gravy, with the fat-to-flesh ratio skewing high toward the former. Accompanying coconut rice and pigeon peas were solid, save for some uncooked rice bits. Meticulously plated, guava-glazed short ribs were prettier than they were tender; a muscular gnaw was required.

Dinner's true standout was the Spanish-style stuffed piquillo peppers, filled with a creamy, coconut-accented paste of salt cod and potato cubes. The dish could have stopped there, but Salinas serves the peppers under a visually arresting squid ink bath, scattering some microgreens on the silken darkness to finish.

Dessert was a heavy flan, served under sticky mango coulis. There was an unusually satisfying heft to the little custard mound, though a purists would decry its excess density.

If Salinas has his way, Caña's riffs on Cuban food will stray even further from its roots. For instance, he recently pulled ropa vieja from the menu for a re-boot. When it returns, it will be "deconstructed" and accompanied with blue cheese-filled arepas, watermelon radishes, and a Trinidadian chocolate pepper sauce. And, recently, he even introduced a (terribly named) "Molecular Appetizer," pairing day boat scallops with malanga purée, aji amarillo foam, beet gastrique, and red tobiko caviar.

I see no inherent issue with Salinas' tweaks. Cuban food itself is a centuries-old amalgam, influenced by Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, Caribbean neighbors, and indigenous produce. If Salinas wants to start making tostones with compressed nori and huckleberry purée, then have at it. It's not a matter of principle; I just think his simpler food comes out better.

Besides, with so few Cuban spots in the Bay Area, it would be nice if Caña's cafe menu remained a sanctuary for traditionalists. "One Cuban sandwich, hold the black pepper Zinfandel reduction ...." 

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