Cuban Dishes, Hispanic Wines and Mouth-Watering Mojitos
Open, Sexy Atmosp here with plenty of Cuban Hospitality
By Sally Deering
La Isla Restaurant on Washington Street up the block from City Hall has been a Hoboken staple, serving Cuban cuisine in a tiny space where you have to step outside to change your mind. Riding on the success of its downtown location, La Isla Uptown located on 12th Street and Maxwell Place takes Cuban cuisine to a whole new level in an atmosphere that’s open, aery and filled with Cuban hospitality.
At La Isla Uptown, its more of a fine-dining experience compared to the luncheonette feeling of La Isla downtown, says wine director and general manager Andres Montoya. The uptown restaurant is huge and open with seating for one-hundred in the dining room, at the bar, and in the front of the restaurant that features a counter and stools for those who want to dine and dash. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls, marble floor tiles, and the ceiling fans in dark brown wood make a visitor feel as if they stepped inside a Havana bistro. Along with the beautiful décor, La Isla Uptown has a liquor license which means great wine, beer and Mojitos, Montoya says.
“We only carry Hispanic wines from Cuba, Spain, Chile, Uruguay,” Montoya says, “and our most popular Mojito is our Pineapple-Habanera Pepper Mojito. Its got a kick to it.”
Montoya, who is a Level-4 Sommelier, says La Isla’s success has a lot to do with great service as well as great food.
“There’s a certain magical feel about delivering an exceptional dining experience,” Montoya says. “Seeing someone taste our food with a glass of wine and seeing that they like those flavors, is very important to us. We want to give our customers the romantic flavors of Cuba.”
La Isla Uptown’s menu features appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrees and desserts. Here’s a sampling: appetizers include Empanada de Pollo o Carne, pastry turnover filled with chicken or ground beef; Croqueta de Jamon, ground smoked ham and onion, breaded and fried; Ceviche de Camarones, fire-roasted tomato, citrus, cilantro, and red onion-marinated shrimp served with plantain chips; Black Bean Hummus, puréed black beans, sesame tahini, lime juice and olive oil, served with plantain chips; and Montaditos, shrimp and chorizo over tostones with red chimichurri. ($3-$10)
Entrees feature Camarones Enchilado, jumbo shrimp sautéed in olive oil, garlic, onion, peppers, olives and creole-style sauce; Arroz Con Pollo a La Chorrera, Cuban-style chicken and saffron risotto, green peas, pimentos, served with sweet plantain; Salmón Chino-Latino, black bean miso-glazed salmon served over Cuban-style fried rice and tostones; Bistek de Palomilla, sirloin steak pounded thin, seared and topped with caramelized onions; Churrasco con Chimichurri, marinated, grilled skirt steak topped with chopped raw onion, served with an Argentinean style steak sauce; and Robalo Entero, boneless pan-roasted whole Branzino served with coconut creole sauce. ($17-$28)
Breakfast is served Tuesday through Saturday and the menu features dishes from the griddle and served with organic 100% pure Dutchess County maple syrup, like Omar’s Stuffed French Toast, egg bread filled with strawberry/guava cream cheese, dipped in cinnamon batter and coated with corn flakes and almonds. Buttermilk Pancakes; La Isla Huevos Rancheros, two poached eggs, spicy tomato sauce in a fried tortilla shell served over black beans with a side of rice; Churrasco a Caballo con Arroz y Frijoles Negros, grilled skirt steak topped with red onion served with fried eggs, rice and black beans; and El Balsero, two poached eggs over shredded flank steak, rice and black beans. ($8-$15)
La Isla Restaurant Uptown has been open a year now; and business is incredible, Montoya says. The restaurant is open seven days a week with breakfast served every day except Monday. And on Sunday, brunch is served. There’s also a Happy Hour Monday through Friday from 4-7 pm.
“At Happy Hour, you can have a Cuban Sandwich and a Mojito for less than $15,” Montoya says.
And, of course, a restaurant is only as good as the food it serves and owner and Chef Omar Giner and his talent are the real reason for the restaurant’s success. Formerly a pastry chef, Chef Omar’s desserts are out of this world, like the Flan de Leche Tradicional, Cuban crème caramel; Tres Leches, vanilla sponge cake soaked in three milks and rum, topped with meringue; Arroz con Leche, rice pudding; Pionono, sponge cake filled with dulce de leche and chocolate glaze; Torta de Limon Frisado con Almivar de Cilantro, frozen key lime pie with cilantro/lime syrup and toasted almonds; Torta de Queso y Mango, coconut mango cheesecake with mango sauce; and Empanada Guayaba, guava and cream cheese turnover. ($5.50-$7)
“Most of the recipes are Chef Omar’s family recipes,” Montoya says. “Mama’s recipes, old school, Cuban-style recipes. Chef Omar is as Cuban as it comes.”
Chef Omar’s culinary talents were challenged recently in an episode of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, where Chef Flay challenged Chef Omar to a French toast cook-off. Chef Omar won the challenge. Chef Omar was also featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, hosted by Guy Fieri, where Chef Omar prepared Croqueta de Jamon, ground smoked ham and onion, breaded and fried.
Montoya says Chef Omar’s passion for cooking the dishes of his country are the true essence of La Isla’s cuisine.
“When you own a restaurant, you have to be passionate about food,” Montoya says. “It’s all about the experience you want people to feel.”
If you go
La Isla Restaurant Uptown
25 12th St, HOB
Hours: Tues-Sat, 8 am-10 pm;
Sun, 10 am-9 pm;
Mon: 5-10 pm