The Vegetarian Option: El Cobre
El Cobre95 Avenue A, New York NY 10009 (At 6th Street; map)
Veggie Options: 5 small plates, 1 rice dish
Cost: $8-12 per plate, drinks $14, $5 for happy hour specials (6-8pm daily)
Any establishment launched by the same team behind Death + Co., Mayahuel, and The Bourgeois Pig (amongst others) is one I'll pay a visit. So when the Cuban-sandwich-shop-speakeasy-Rum-Bar complex known as Cienfuegos expanded to include a full sit-down restaurant, it made the top of my list.
We've already got El Cobre's brunch covered, but I wanted to give dinner a try and see how they fare on the vegetarian front. It's been my experience that Cuban restaurants are often lacking in vegetarian options (getting sliced avocado as an entrée comes to mind)*, so when the menu had at least a small handful of options, I was psyched.
*Not that there's anything wrong with avocado.
Show up early and not only will you have no problem grabbing a table, but you can take advantage of the happy hour special. From 6-8 pm daily they offer several of their small plates at only $5 apiece, or for the same price, you can snag a cup of the house punch. The yucca fries (regularly $8) are firmer, meatier, and more flavorful than their potato counterpart. The curried mustard they come with was quite tasty on its own, but the fries were so perfectly seasoned that they didn't need such an overpowering condiment.
The vegetable empanadas (regularly $12) were another great $5 grab. They're filled with a mixture of black beans and corn, and have just a slight kick of heat. The side of avocado puree would have been way too lemony as a guacamole, but as a dip for this dish it was perfect: each bite had a delicious mix of sour and spice.
From the regular menu, the Ensalada De Palmitas ($8) combined hearts of palm, endive, avocado, grapefruit, pink peppercorns, and thin slices of cheese. It sounded like a delicious and exotic mix, but in the end it didn't quite come together as intended. The individual components never really complimented each other, and the muted vinaigrette was lost in the mix. Tasty? Sure. Lived up to its potential? Not so much.
On the other hand, the Arroz Con Vegetales ($10) was better than expected. Perfectly sautéed peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and (surprise!) kale were mixed into a mild yellow rice with a remarkably good vegetable-to-rice ratio. With a little less oil I might dare call this dish both healthy and hearty, and the large plate was ideal for sharing.
When it really comes down to it, however, El Cobre is still more bar than restaurant. The drinks dominate both the menu and the atmosphere, and even at $14 apiece it would be almost criminal not to order one (or two). And should you happen to be sitting next to Mayur Subbarao (who designed El Cobre's cocktail menu) and should he happen to give you a few personalized recommendations, it would be wise to follow his advice.
Our favorites were the spirit-forward Improved Heming-way (St. James Rhum Ambre, Aperol, absinthe, and grapefruit bitters), a bold and flavorful drink which mellows slowly as the ice melts, as well as the December Morn (Flor de Caña Extra Dry, Laird's apple brandy, egg white, lemon, grenadine), which is frothy and delicious. Even though it falls on the fruity side of the divide, it manages to be rich and complex without being overly sweet.
We were also told that the deceptively simple Honeysuckle (Santa Teresa 1796 dark rum and honey) is a favorite of one of the bartenders at Death + Co., which gives me something to look forward to on my next visit. El Cobre's food may be worthwhile, even for vegetarians, but it's the stellar drinks that will keep bringing you back.