Open just a couple of months, Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar on Orange Street in New Haven is an absolute gem.
Dominick Splendorio, shown here beneath a photo of his Cuban grandfather,
also owns Café Java just around the corner on Elm Street
and La Granja (formerly The Whole Enchilada) a couple of blocks away on Whitney Avenue.
At Zafra, Dominick hired as his chef a friend of mine of almost 30 years, Tadahiro “Haya” Hayasaka.
Those who have followed Haya’s interesting Elm City career know that he was the sushi chef at Miya Sushi in the 1980s, had a popular food cart at the medical school for a while, had his own restaurants in Japanese Noodle House and Haya’s Japanese Restaurant, and has served in recent years as the appetizer chef at vaunted Union League Café. Trained as a Japanese and French chef in his youth, Haya has now ventured into Cuban cooking—with impressive results.
On a rainy day in a long stretch of rainy days, my wife and I visited Zafra with our dear friend Angela, who had just that day returned from several months spent in her home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We received a rather wooden greeting from the gal with the ukulele,
and then found a table.
The walls were sparsely decorated with Cuban memorabilia.
Although open only briefly, the restaurant had drawn a happy and diverse crowd.
While the front room featured tall tables and stools, the small back room was equipped with chairs, counters and tables of regular height.
Zafra’s hardworking staff is one of its strong suits. Jolene and Edward were just delightful.
Another one of Zafra’s strengths is its drink selection. There’s a brief but effective wine list, a good selection of bottled Caribbean beers, and a nice selection of draught beers as well. But most important, Zafra offers 108 different rums and 22 cocktails. Zafra is Connecticut’s first rum bar and Edward is a supremely talented mixologist.
When someone orders one particular favorite, it’s great fun as they shout its name: Release The Kraken!
I’m not normally that big on mixed drinks, but Edward’s creations proved superb. Pictured are a mango mojito (Edward also makes shockingly good, alcohol-free mango mojitos),
a Captain Jack Sparrow,
a coconut mojito,
and a Daiquiri “Papa Hemingway.”
Edward took care of our table throughout the evening.
We started with nice bread,
a vibrant chimichurri sauce, and the absolute best idea for a butter flavor that I have ever encountered—mojito butter.
That wonderful acidity found in the chimichurri and the butter quickly became a recurrent theme. As we cut a serious swath through Zafra’s menu, it became apparent that not only was the balance of acidity always perfect but the food was always incredibly fresh, the flavors expertly brought to the fore.
I was glad that I had a strong background in Caribbean as well as Latin American and Asian food to draw on in writing this piece. Few Americans my age have visited Cuba, and most have done so as part of carefully approved and regimented tours. A few sneak in, as I did, which seems ironic when so many people are trying to sneak out. I was in Cuba for 10 days in December 1999, at the end of which the Elián González controversy exploded into the news. I ate in everything from tourist hotels to tourist landmarks to restaurants for Cubans to the sometimes legal restaurants in people’s houses called paladares. I visited public markets and saw the appallingly rancid meat and produce available to most Cubans. I witnessed young women pre-teen and up selling themselves so their families could eat. I have often commented wryly that if Cuban food is good, it’s not authentic, not to Cuba today anyway, maybe to the Cuba of decades past or to the Cuban community in Miami. Believe me, you don’t want “authentic” Cuban food.
A visit to Jamaica in 1979 had a huge role in changing my thinking about American food. I realized that Jamaica’s scrawny, unattractive chickens had twenty times the flavor of America’s mass-produced poultry. Although still in college, I began to question our habit of breeding plants and animals for size, color and durability at the expense of flavor.
Extended visits to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas greatly increased my knowledge of Caribbean food. I didn’t just eat in restaurants but also people’s homes, in some cases even helping with the cooking. These visits made me realize how much better Caribbean food generally is in the islands than in Connecticut restaurants. There are exceptions, like Imperial Caribbean, a Haitian restaurant in Cromwell, and when I encounter them I tell you about them.
Zafra’s shrimp ceviche—with avocado, diced tomato, cucumber, red onion, lemon and lime juice, and cilantro—simply couldn’t have been improved upon.
Crispy tostone-like plantain cups were filled with a vibrant shrimp Creole.
A terrific empanada appetizer included picadillo (seasoned ground beef), mango chicken, and spinach and Jack cheese fillings. I’m an empanada connoisseur, having helped develop an empanada restaurant chain in New York, so my endorsement here means even more than usual.
Also delicious were Cuban dumplings filled with pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles,
which were served with a Malibu rum dipping sauce.
The dumplings were actually Asian-styled, like Japanese gyoza or Korean mandoo. Papas rellenas were mashed potato balls filled with picadillo and served with a chipotle aïoli.
Another major winner was the grilled shrimp skewers, the snappy little prawns flavored with a dark rum glaze.
Note details like the serving baskets, which were woven by Haya from sugar cane husks. Zafra is a term referring to the sugar cane harvest, and Zafra is the only restaurant in Connecticut to use a sugar cane press.
Our entrées maintained the same standard of excellence that we’d come to expect with the appetizers. Key lime jerk tilapia was topped with mango salsa and served with tostones, rice and black beans.
In mediocre Caribbean restaurants, I’ve had black beans that were insipid, but these frijoles negros, cooked with a sofrito, were so good I polished them off even though I was full enough to burst. A flavorful churrasco steak was topped with chimichurri sauce and served with white rice, black beans and maduros (sweet plantains).
But our favorite main dish was the lechon asado, incredibly flavorful and succulent slow-roasted pork topped with sautéed onions and served with cassava, white rice and maduros.
Although we were more than full, we couldn’t resist trying a couple of Zafra’s housemade desserts. The delightful bread pudding was made with spiced rum.
And the wonderfully moist tres leches cake might have been even better.
We accompanied our desserts with strong coffees
At the end of an incredible meal, I got to greet my old friend, Haya, and extend my congratulations to Dominick and Haya for this impressive addition to Connecticut’s culinary landscape.
Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar, 259 Orange Street, New Haven,