Trekking to Cuba is a bucket list item for me; as a country subject to relic Cold War-era travel restrictions, it’s been a forbidden fruit nearly impossible to visit. But with the recent loosening of travel visas to the island, Americans are slowly getting the opportunity to experience a culture essentially held in stasis in an age long past. So since the borders aren’t quite completely open yet, you’ll find it a little easier (and less time-consuming) to bask in the Cuban experience locally with the recent opening of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill at The Venetian instead.
The décor exclaims Havana with plantation shutters, black-and-white floor tiles and wicker ceiling fans; surprisingly, the menu is decidedly less Cuba-centric and instead celebrates the clean, seafood-centric cuisine of the Caribbean and Florida itself where the restaurant originates from. While the textbook Cubano can be found on the brunch menu, a medianoche is nowhere to be found. But goat cheese croquettes—a staple from the Miami flagship—represent the island, with their sharpness balanced by the accompanying membrillo (quince) marmalade.
The raw bar is a prominent highlight of the Sugarcane experience; in fact, it is a focal point of the room, intentionally located to draw diners’ gazes. Standard shellfish offerings include middleneck clams and Jonah crab claws—kin to the world-renowned stone crab—but the crudos are where the venue excels. Hokkaido scallop crudo, served atop compressed apple for a juxtaposition of textures, is enhanced with black truffles; their earthiness doesn’t obscure the mild bivalve. Similarly, kinilaw kampachi crudo draws upon a traditional Filipino ceviche recipe and is finished with a coconut cane vinegar and puffed rice for a mixture of feels and flavors. And the kombu-marinated fluke intensifies in saltiness the longer it rests on the kelp, while red grapes and sesame seeds diversify the dish.
But lest you think the raw bar dominates the menu, rest assured there are numerous cooked options also. Charred Brussels sprouts intermix with orange for hints of citrus, while a common appetizer is elevated in the bacon-wrapped dates; the ever-popular combination of meat and sweet is endowed with a contrast from the Manchego cheese. Open fire grill options include an incredibly tender Spanish octopus. A take on chicken and waffles is the duck and waffle, with a duck egg anointing crispy leg confit. Maybe the most entertaining item is potentially the most challenging in the pig ear pad Thai, with the swine standing in for the pasta; finished with a papaya salad, the pig ears are crispy with little characteristic chewiness.
Wash down your meal with the Tobacco Rum Old Fashioned, drawing upon the historic cigars of Cuban lore with an infusion of cigar bitters; with maple syrup substituting for the typical cane sugar, the combination gives the cocktail an earthy composure relative to its traditional counterpart. Even better might be the Rum ’n’ Bramble, which mixes Asian yuzu, blackberry purée and cardamom bitters with aged-añejo rum for a complex cocktail whose sweetness is highlighted without overpowering the palate. Or just simply sample from the multitude of rums available straight. When in Cuba!
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