Speak Easy and Carry a Big Punchbowl.

So. You may have noticed a dearth of New York-related posts lately, and there’s a good reason for that, I swear: I’ve been sans camera since the last few days of our Philippines trip, when my trusty Panasonic went on strike. It’s currently being repaired, but I finally got around to picking up a cheap little replacement to use in the meantime. The other night, with my new toy in hand, I headed down to the East Village to check out the latest speakeasy-style joint to grace the neighborhood.

Cienfuegos, the Cuban sister of nearby Mayahuel, is only accessible via the back staircase of Carteles, a tiny café and sandwich shop on East 6th Street; the street level’s cheery blue-and-yellow decor belies nothing of the space revealed at the top of the stairs.

The upper level is divided into two distinct seating areas, one the most perfect shade of tealish green, the other jewel-box pink, both painted to resemble classic Cuban interiors. With its ornate wrought-iron balustrades, tufted headboard-style banquettes, and comfortable, clean-lined nail head armchairs, the dining room is made for lounging. We quickly obliged, leaning back in our seats to peruse page upon page of drink options.

It was much easier to decide on food, mostly because my friend ordered for us before I got there.

She picked the vegetable empanadas, filled with corn, black beans, and red peppers and served with a dollop of slightly spicy guacamole. They were passable, nicely flavored but nothing special; the guac, on the other hand, I ate on its own, by the forkful.

Her second selection was a sampler plate of three different sandwiches: a pulled-pork sloppy joe, a Cubano, and, the most unusual, a combination of turkey, ham, and spicy strawberry sauce. Again, all fairly tasty, not mind-blowing.

We managed to have a bite of almost everything by the time our bowl of rum-based punch arrived. We’d finally settled on the Cuban Angel, frothy with egg whites and sweet with apricot jam, the sugary note only barely tempered by the addition of orange bitters.

It was a pretty drink, but after half a glass or so, the sweet richness proved to be too much for our palates, and we ordered a round of daiquiris instead. Those were also sugary, but with a much sharper rum counter-punch.

We ordered the crab gratin for dessert, mainly because we wanted to try another dish, not because we were actually hungry. (Something savory was more appealing than another round of sweet stuff.) As much as I wanted to love this, the crab was way too fishy-tasting; we tried to wash down each bite with the accompanying pickles—presented to cut creaminess of the gratin, I presume—but they were so briny they were almost inedible.

By the time we’d finished our drinks, the room was boisterous—lights were dimmed and seats were full, while lively Buena Vista Social Club-style music asserted itself over a current of chatter and laughter. The kitchen’s kinks were the least of this crowd’s worries; they came for the ambiance, the decor, the cocktails. For my next visit, I’ll take a page from that book and stop by for pre-dinner or late-night drinks, not so much for the fine dining.

Cienfuegos
443 E 6th St
(between 1st Ave & Avenue A)
New York, NY
212.614.6818

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