78 Southfield Ave., Stamford, (203) 817-0700, dolcecubano.com
Walk in to Dolce Cubano and try not to say, "Wow." It's a knockout of white carrera marble, red leather banquets, contemporary, Murano glass chandeliers, antiqued mirrors, large silver candelabras, and a pulsing techo beat. A retractable glass wall runs the length of the room, overlooking a small marina filled with big pleasure boats. (Dolce has two slips, should you wish to arrive by yacht). The large, seasonal outdoor bar is poised to be warm weather's hottest hangout.
When Dolce Cubano opened three months ago, the crowds descended. Friday and Saturday nights people throng around the triangular bar, drinking and people-watching during long waits (up to an hour and a half) for tables (no reservations policy). Now, Dolce has started serving Sunday brunch. Last week I got in without a wait. As dramatic as Dolce can be in the evening, it was appealingly bright on this late winter afternoon. Flames leapt in the fireplace, techno music beat an urgent rhythm.
Co-owned by Nick Racanelli Jr. and his father, seasoned restaurateur Nick Sr., Dolce's look bears similarities to their restaurants Molto in Fairfield and Zaza in Stamford. Here is the sexy, red, black and white palette, expanded to 144 seats. And these leather seats are comfortable.
Zaza's gastro-pub menu carries over to Dolce, with a nod to Cuba. It's a menu designed to please a wide audience. From wings and burgers to steamed lobster. If you go for lunch on Sunday, you'll have to order from the brunch menu. It's replete with egg dishes — Benedict, omelets and huevos rancheros — and sandwiches and salads, and unexpected things like chicken Milanese, scallops in garlic sauce, and strip steak in Barolo wine sauce.
But the name of this place is Dolce Cubano, so I want the Havana roast pork. The pork is marinated with a dry rub, then slow-roasted for five hours. At brunch, it comes with rice and beans and two fried eggs ($18). While waiting, we sampled the bread basket. Fresh-baked mini-croissants were quite good, crisp outside, moist and airy layers inside. The corn bread was light-textured and sweet.
My meal arrived, a heaping plate of tender, moist, seasoned pork, yellow rice and black beans. The pork was terrific. The beans tasted housemade; they had a soft, not mushy, consistency. Cumin was the predominate flavor. But the "classic Cuban saffron rice" was a disappointment. Adding saffron to this Cuban staple, which traditionally gets its color from annatto seeds, makes this down-home staple sound special, but the art of rice-making was not evident in the mushy, overly wet grains I was served.
The eggs, ordered over easy, arrived bearing the toughened consistency of high heat on the griddle. And they seemed superfluous, so I didn't mind pushing most of them to the side. With that heap of meat and ladle of beans, who needed more protein? What I craved was something green. A small plate of sautéed spinach added $7 to the tab.
Ask for hot sauce and they'll bring you mini-bottles of Tabasco. I wondered, given the prices, at the absence of a culinary touch to elevate the food — a garnish of a crisp plantain chip, perhaps, or a ramekin of Cuban aji verde (green sauce).
But at Dolce you're paying for the décor, setting and view. And brunch is brunch, after all — a relaxed activity of the affluent and aspirational. The attractive, well-groomed couple sitting next to us told us they'd gotten engaged at the Mansion at Turtle Creek, a famous AAA Five Diamond restaurant in Dallas. At Dolce they ordered eggs Benedict and bellinis and seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves.
Brunch offers $15 unlimited bellinis and mimosas, but this place is a rum bar and the cocktail list, featuring high-end rums and fresh fruit juices, looks intriguing. Atlantico rum is their basic rum for mojitos and daiquiris, but it's not ordinary. Made in the Dominican Republic, it is a blend of two rums, one distilled from molasses, the other from sugar cane. As a longtime fan of the flavor of cachaca, the Brazilian sugar-cane rum, I liked this idea. Atlantico is a mild, clear spirit that doesn't overwhelm Dolce's fresh-fruit drinks, like the classic mojito ($11.50), full of muddled lime and mint, and so refreshingly sip-able, its power can sneak up on you.
The Rum Runner and Mai Tai get a splash of high-end Ron Zacapa, an aged, dark rum from Guatemala, along with the Atlantico rum. Pyrat, a brand bottled by the Patron tequila folks, spikes the Pyrat Passion, a girly sounding concoction of peach schnapps, muddled lemons and limes and grenadine.
Speaking of girls, they'll find the most over-the-top bathroom I've seen since clubbing days. Lit by a red light that reflects off marble tile walls and floor-to-ceiling stainless steel stalls, music throbs here too. Returning to the dining room, you pass through a red-striped hallway lit by those rococo Murano chandeliers.
Dolce Cubano is a destination, and if you want to show visitors that Fairfield County isn't just a sleepy burb, it's the place to take them.