Written by Dave Gil de Rubio, firstname.lastname@example.org Friday, 01 February 2013 00:00
Is it the combo in the corner playing the kind of music that wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to the Buena Vista Social Club as a scantily-clad lass and her sharply-dressed partner dance a mean merengue? Or maybe it’s the older gentleman in a crisp white shirt and fedora effortlessly rolling cigars while waitstaff shuttle mojitos to the assorted guests? Perhaps it’s the décor of high archways and ceilings, where fans lazily rotate, and the room features mossy green wallpaper adorned with lush palm fronds? Or it may even be the black and white portrait of the late Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball that shows the daffy redhead holding a banner that reads Havana. And while you may be wondering if you’re still in Garden City, in truth, you’ve entered Havana Central, a restaurant that evokes pre-Castro Cuba in its design, cuisine and ambience.
The man behind this explosion of Latin flavor is restaurant founder/ CEO Jeremy Merrin, who was hosting a ribbon cutting for what is now the fourth location in his string of restaurants. With the others being in Times Square, uptown near Columbia University and in Yonkers, this is Merrin’s first foray into Long Island. Located in the old Modells space at the Roosevelt Field Mall, this new eatery is just the latest addition to what’s quickly becoming a de facto restaurant row. The difference that separates Havana Central from its neighbors is that this is a sophisticated way of presenting Cuban culture while serving food that is rooted in the simplicity of both ingredients and preparation. It’s all part of the lifelong love affair Merrin has had with the Latin way of life that inspired him to open his first restaurant in 2002.
“It all started when I was in high school and fell in love with a Cuban girl. The bottom line is that I’ve always loved Cuban food,” admitted Merrin. “It takes a restaurant three to six months to get their act together and we’re actually moving along pretty quickly. But I wouldn’t feel confident giving a real official opening until I felt like we had most of the basics down. But we’ve had a good run and the last month has been very good. We’ve seen people now three, four or five times just in the month since we’ve been open.”
Part of the success may come from the vibe that infuses the restaurant. Along with a private party room, the main part of Havana Central is a mix of booths, tables and large eating areas that have tapestry-like walls. The mostly Hispanic staff buzzes around, constantly following up on customers’ needs and wants. But however welcoming or tropical the mood may be, it all comes down to the food. The driving force behind the menu is Executive Chef Stanley Licairac, who was the first employee hired by Merrin. And while he’s been professionally cooking for 20 years, this son of a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother has been learning his trade since childhood.
“I didn’t even go to culinary school. I’m actually an airplane mechanic. I went to the College of Aeronautics,” Licairac admitted. “My parents were in the business since basically when I was in the womb. My parents had their first place when I guess I was probably about five or six years old.”
It was at a string of delis that his parents owned where the budding chef learned about Latin food staples like empanadas, ropa vieja and pernil, all of which can be found on the current menu. This fealty to the simplicity of ingredients and preparation is something that drives Licairac in trying to whip up the tastiest dishes he can.
“All across the Caribbean culture, we all eat the same thing. I can’t say that our food is better or they’re better than us. What I can say is that our food is a lot more rustic. We’re not trying to change anything or be chi-chi. I literally cook the exact food that I’ve eaten my entire life,” he proudly declared. “Because these are such high-volume restaurants, certain things cannot be cooked the same. Technique has changed but the flavor is there. And it doesn’t change and there’s no reason to change it. Call me old school but I like what I used to eat and everybody else seems to like it as well, so I’m sticking to that.”
Echoing this call to a simpler time is Vice President of Operations Randy Talbot. A veteran of the food service industry, the Boston native got his start at Bertucci’s, a Massachusetts-based chain of sit-down Italian restaurants known for its extensive use of brick ovens in preparing its pizza. During his 18 years with the company, Talbot prided himself in developing a culture based on the core values of trust, loyalty, responsibility and accountability. It’s something he’s carried over to Havana Central, its employees and the dining experience they provide.
“Twenty years ago, families sat down at the table and celebrated dinner. Every Sunday, Friday or whatever you always found yourself sitting around the table with your family and actually had conversations and you ate and it was a celebration. Today, American culture is almost eating to survive,” Talbot pointed out. “There are a lot of fast-food places that have popped up and everybody is all about get ’em in, get ’em out. I want you to come to Havana Central and spend an hour and a half and feel like you are on vacation. We want to make sure that when you walk through those two front doors that you are going to know instantly that you are somewhere that you’ve never been before.”