good shmeats

one food-loving vegetarian taking New York City's restaurants one plate at a time.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Cafe Habana - Nolita

Cafe Habana
17 Prince Street (at Elizabeth Street)

Brunching in Nolita can be a trying experience. This nearly non-existent sliver of a neighborhood combines the "scenester" pomp of the Lower East Side and the superfluous money of Soho. Too often, its most renowned restaurants offer better people watching than creative or well crafted dishes. Regardless, I decided to brave Nolita's narrow, boutique-lined streets to find out if Cafe Habana could provide a brief glimpse into its namesake's vibrant culture and beauty.

True to the neighborhood, Cafe Habana is filled with fashionable people and a casually sophisticated decor - both of which are styled to appear as if they simply woke up looking fabulous. Waiting for my brunch mate to arrive, I watched couples toting small dogs and wearing large sunglasses share their meals while the morning sunshine glinted off the aluminum tables and the spring air rushed through the wide-open windows.

Despite its decidedly Cuban name, Cafe Habana serves both Cuban and Mexican dishes. The tiny cafe is revered across lower Manhattan for its grilled corn ($2.00), which comes bathed in melted cheese and chili powder, and is served with wedges of sharp lime. Even hipsters leave their egos at the door and push back their floppy bangs to devour this messy snack.

For brunch I began with a Cafe con Leche ($2.50). I imagined a warm pool of coffee, slightly pale with steamed milk and served in an endearingly chipped ceramic cup and saucer. Instead, our waitress brought a lukewarm, overly-milky coffee in what looked like an ice cream sundae glass. I wondered aloud to my brunch mate if perhaps Cafe Habana's dishwasher was broken, and these glasses were all they had left.

Soon after ordering, my Omelet Caribe ($6.95) arrived along with homefries and salsa verde. Pieces of butter-browned plantain floated sporadically amidst the otherwise pale eggs. The plantain added a welcome exotic sweetness to the omelet, but overall the dish lacked contrast and texture. The salsa verde was equally forgettable, but the homefries were an improvement - savory, slightly creamy, and hot with spice.

My brunch mate's pancakes also turned out to be disappointing. The unsophisticated cakes sagged over the edges of the plate, heavy under a watery mixture of strawberries, bananas, and oranges. Despite the Vermont maple syrup that Cafe Habana serves with their sweet breakfasts, the pancakes tasted slightly burnt. Perhaps we should have stuck with the roasted corn.

The line for weekend brunch at Cafe Habana usually overflows onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately the wait at this perpetually-crowded cafe serves little more than hype.


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