Chan Chan can cook

The chefs at Chan Chan Cafe Cubano work their island magic with Cuban favorites
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

One is tempted to say that Chan Chan Café Cubano is authentically Cuban, but one has no idea, really. These days it is easier for Americans to visit Albania than Cuba, which, after nearly 50 years, remains sequestered behind the rusty remains of the iron curtain. Maybe Barack, if he manages to fend off the dazzling Republicans — he a grizzled ex-maverick with recurrent skin cancer, she a sporty gunner-down of wolves from helicopters (Tail Gunner Sarah?) — will rethink the wisdom of our Cuba policy. First, of course, he'll have to put Wall Street's Humpty Dumpty back together again while finding some path out of two ruinous wars. The book of Genesis informs us that God created the earth in six days, "and he rested on the seventh day from all the work which he had done," but the president who succeeds the present crew won't have it so easy.

The endless and preposterous isolation of Cuba reveals itself in many ways, among them a paucity of Cuban restaurants. We have a few, and we've had a few fail, among the latter the homey Los Flamingos (in Duboce Triangle) and the grander Habana (at the edge of Russian Hill). At the moment we have Laurel's (in Hayes Valley) and Café Lo Cubano (in — oh, irony — Laurel Heights). And of course Chan Chan, which is nearly as isolated as Cuba itself.

The restaurant (opened in August by Ana Herrera and Michel Alvarez) occupies a snug space, very nearly at the head of 18th Street, that previously housed another restaurant but whose most historic occupant was Fran Gage's Patisserie Française, a boutique bakery that helped set the table for today's wealth of boutique bakeries. The patisserie was destroyed by fire in 1995, and the building seemed to sit there as a charred hulk for many months, perhaps years.

Signs of the fire are long gone. When I first stepped into Chan Chan, I discreetly looked for them and sniffed for them, but all I noticed were handsomely distressed wood frames around the doors and windows and the smell of flowers. Maybe my companion was wearing too much (flowery) cologne. The restaurant is small, with seating at about a half dozen tables for maybe 20 people. One wall looks like a gigantic finger painting, and there is a semi-exhibition kitchen where Alvarez, the young, rakish chef, works his magic.

And magic he does work. Chan Chan might look like a café, with a menu whose dishes are all demurely described — and modestly priced — as tapas, but the food is sophisticated and often sublime. Even the dipping sauces that accompany the warm bread are carefully conceived and executed; among these are a garlic-and-honey vinaigrette flecked with herbs and a smoothly savory tapenade of sun-dried tomato. (The restaurant's menu describes the cooking style as "fusion," hence some of these cross-cultural borrowings.)

The salads and other vegetable-intensive dishes are of a lushness that might appeal to Cézanne. The tibia salad ($10.50), for instance, a variation on spinach salad, is a springtime meadow of deep green, tender leaves tossed with pine nuts, raisins, and chunks of seared apple, all of it bound together by a voluptuous, sweet-tart dressing. Similarly verdant is the aguacate relleno ($12.50), a beautifully ripe avocado split, peeled, filled with sautéed shrimp and scallops, and nestled in garden greens. Eating this dish is a little bit like stumbling on an avocado-shaped treasure chest in the woods and opening it to find a fortune of edible gold.

Given the historical importance of pork in both Spain and her New World colonies, it is slightly surprising that Chan Chan turns out such a wondrous lamb shank ($15).

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