- 148 E. Market St., New Albany, IN, 47150
- (812) 944-9760
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- Open for lunch and dinner daily.
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Consider the case of Rip Van Winkle. After sleeping for 20 years, he awoke one fine morning to discover that he'd fallen asleep a subject of King George III, slept through the American Revolution, and awakened as a free citizen of the United States.
If Rip's nap had started in, say, 1991, and he'd awakened this spring, he'd have been plenty surprised to awaken in a world of smartphones, iPods, graphic user interfaces and all the rest. But if he had awakened in downtown New Albany, Ind., his biggest shock might have come when he discovered the restaurants that had come and gone during his long slumber.
In fact, even a decade ago, downtown dining in New Albany was pretty much defined by the Southside Inn, where the lunchtime cafeteria queue often stretched well out on the sidewalk, as folks waited for a bite of fried whitefish or a plateful of roast beef and mashed potatoes.
As Rip strolled through town, he might be particularly struck by this: that the venerable New Albany Inn is now home to Habana Blues Tapas Restaurant, a Cuban place with a trendy focus on small-plate cuisine.
The building is one of those stately structures that was built to last, and though it shows its age if you look too closely at the details, its cozy dining spaces, attractive bar area, and splendid courtyard have a sort of Old World charm that seems just the right setting for a meal with Spanish and Caribbean overtones.
The menu — soups, salads, hot and cold tapas, sandwiches, paella — is perfectly suited to the way many of us like to eat now: grazing through a flexible, self-directed collection of tastes and textures rather than following a pre-determined three-course path; passing dishes around the table rather than staking claim to our own tidy plate.
Habana Blues' kitchen turns out a nice assortment of dishes. On a warm day, cold tapas — a hefty serving of guacamole with crisp plantain chips ($7.55); a gorgeous, vividly spiced roasted red pepper hummus ($5.99); a bowl of assorted house-marinated olives ($4.75); or a cool, classic Tortilla Espanola (a potato-onion omelet with a roasted red pepper-garlic sauce, $5.50) could make a pleasant light meal for two.
But hot dishes outnumber cold by almost three to one, and there are plenty of gems on the “calientes” side of the menu. Finding the right condiment to accompany sweet potato fries has proven challenging from some restaurants, but Habana Blues (like some other Cuban restaurants in the region) has discovered the perfect solution: a piping hot bowl of smoked honey. It sounds like a recipe for cloying sweetness, but that honey also contains a fine crimson mist of cayenne that balances everything out with a bit of prickly heat ($4.50). If you prefer unbridled heat, patatas bravas (fried new potatoes) with a brick red sauce will serve ($6.55).
Big, flaky empanadas stuffed with succulent, saucy pulled chicken, vegetables or ground beef prepared picadillo-style, which is to say in the “sloppy joe” style that has its origins in pre-Castro Cuba ($4.50).
Speaking of sloppy delights, if you're in the mood for seafood, tamal de mariscos ($7.25) is a glorious tangle of crawfish, grouper and shrimp in a mellow red sauce, piled atop a tender, steamed tamale. Another seafood choice that stood out on recent visits was gambas al ajillo, sautéed shrimp served in a deep, hot, buttery bath flavored with red pepper flakes ($6.99).
Meatier tastes will find comfort in skewered pork tenderloin ($7.75), and though the menu doesn't include the classic beef-based ropa vieja, the chicken version that's offered ($7.99) is a flawless, juicy bowl of tender chicken in a pleasant red sauce (and comes with white rice and black bean soup, making it fine for a solo meal).
And if it's a simple, straightforward sandwich you're after, you could hardly do better than the Cubano ($7.50), a sizzling hot assembly of ham, roasted pork and Swiss cheese, spiced up with mustard and pickles, welded together within the crisp confines of a crunchy pressed bread.
Or come to think of it, maybe you could do better: the pan con huevo y chorizo is no second class sandwich — it's made with dense Spanish chorizo, fig jam and a couple of fried eggs, and comes with a side of fresh fruit ($6.99).
Rip Van Winkle might be momentarily confused by such a sandwich, but I'm pretty sure he'd get used to it pretty quickly — especially since the service staff is eager to explain the menu and concept to customers who are new to Cuban food or tapas-style dining.