Cuban Revolution has come to Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood.
Just a few blocks away from the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Middle East area has seldom officered any reason for outsiders to wander in. That is changing.
The neighborhood is being developed as a mixed-use life science campus. The anchor tenant is the Science & Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, but the 80-acre area will include other research facilities along with new housing, parking and a six-acre central park.
The Rangos Building, the area's first completed project, now has a bank, a convenience store, a pharmacy and, as of February, the neighborhood's first new restaurant — and the first Cuban Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.
"You don't open a restaurant with a name like Cuban Revolution and expect not to be noticed," says the website of the restaurant, which was has two locations in Providence, R.I., and one in Durham, N.C.
Cuban Revolution, it says, has received no end of flak, or even bomb threats, for featuring Fidel Castro's image on its walls. The space is meant to recall an era when "challenging the norm was the norm," the website says, when "JFK was a President ... not an airport."
Seen in photographs, the original Cuban Revolution in Providence — which is no longer open — looks scrappy and charming, the kind of place that people like to discover — and talk about. The Baltimore restaurant, though, feels like something you might find in a renovated student union.
It's big and anonymous, with wide expanses of windows up front and multiple television screens hanging over the front bar. Walls are decorated with oversized artwork depicting revolutionary figures and neon beer signs. At the back, the open kitchen is framed by an artsy installation of television monitors that are meant to show a program of newsreel footage from the 1950s and 1960s. When we saw them, they were all stuck on the menu screen. Either way, it's a cute totalitarian touch.
The atmosphere feels contrived, as does the food, which is bland and badly presented. Even a passable appetizer like chips with mango salsa looks lame because the salsa is served in a plastic cup meant for condiments. The aioli dip for an appetizer of fried green plantains had separated by the time it came to our table.The shrimp on the gambas aioli appetizer have a nice touch of garlic flavor but were small and rubbery. The only decent appetizer was goat cheese and sweet piquante peppers from a jar on slices of flaky, buttery Cuban toast.
Among the entrees, the best was the clams chorizo de Espana, a bowl of clam-flavored tomato broth filled with baby clams and chorizo. Its strong clam flavor was welcome.
Nothing else landed. The Shrimp Tropical entree, served with Spanish rice, roasted vegetables and sweet plantains, featured barely seasoned shrimp in a flat garlic-sherry sauce. The Cuban Picadillo, a bowl of ground pork with olives, raisins and almonds, tasted too heavily of cinnamon.
The Bay of Pigs entree was a bowl of black beans and rice and sweet plantains and a choice of empanada for $14. All of it was decent but dull.
The menu also offers wraps and pressed sandwiches and build-your-own burritos and bowls at lunch. The $13.25 Revolution Burger, juicy and well seasoned, is built with grilled pineapple and havarti cheese. It's good but over-produced, dressed with both a mango aioli and "chimmy mayo."
Cuban Revolution could still succeed as a gathering spot for a new neighborhood, but service has to improve. It was friendly but shaky. The bar took forever to make un-drinkably sweet mojitos and weak margaritas. We had to prod our waiter to take drink orders, to bring small plates for sharing appetizers and to notice when only three entrees came out for four people. Staff haven't been trained to anticipate needs or solve problems.
Fighting a revolution is like running a restaurant. You have to care a lot, or at least make people think you do.
Cuban Revolution Restaurant and Bar
Where: 1903 Ashland Ave., Middle East
Contact: 443-708-5184, thecubanrevolution.com
Open: Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers $5-$10; entrees $14-$22
Food: Cuban-themed pub food
Best dishes: Clams chorizo de Espana, black beans and rice
Parking: Metered street parking
Children: Not much for the little revolutionary.
Noise level: Brassy, barlike atmosphere.
Dietary considerations: Vegetarian options are ample and easy to find.
[Key: Superlative:*****; Excellent:****; Very Good:***; Good:**; Promising:*]