If you stop by Belle & James on Friday or Saturday night for the next few months, don’t expect the typical Southern-French-inspired cuisine. After several successful single-event Passport Pop Ups where chef Mike Ledesma took lucky groups of diners on culinary trips to far-off countries for one single night, he’s letting a larger group get in on the adventure with Passport: Cuba. Every Friday and Saturday night for the next several months, Belle & James will be serving a full Cuban-themed menu alongside a limited regular menu. The culinary Caribbean staycation kicked off last weekend and I was invited in to sample some of the new dishes. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one.
Ledesma’s heritage may be Filipino, but he spent a lot of time researching Cuban food and talking with Cuban cooks to get the dishes right for the Passport menu. “It’s about respecting the food and using your resources,” he said. The general manager at Belle & James is from the Dominican Republic and the owner’s wife is Cuban, so Ledesma talked with them, asked them to taste menu items, and leveraged any other connections he had to Cuban cuisine to refine his recipes. “When people start asking, ‘Can I get this recipe to give my mom?’ you know you got it right,” he says.
And some dishes took multiple tries. For example, the dough for the Empanadaditas de Picadillo—fried hand pies filled with spiced ground beef, raisins, olives, and other delicious spices—took several tries. Ledesma and his crew tested versions with butter and versions with lard until the hybrid dough that made the menu was developed. These empanadas are light and flaky with a delicately spiced filling that’s perfectly balanced. Fried crispy and fresh, they aren’t greasy in the least, just crisp and all too easy to keep eating until every single bite is gone.
Equally delicious are Croquetas de Jamon—tasty little balls of ham and onion bound together with béchamel sauce that are crisply fried to perfection and served with a creamy saffron aioli.
Don’t miss the Cuban Mojo Shrimp. To the naked eye, they look like simple grilled shrimp, but a marinade of garlic, orange juice, red pepper flakes, oregano, and cumin make them sweet, spicy and smoky all at once. I was impressed to find so many flavors in a small package.
Lechon Asado is tender and flavorful roasted pork served over flavorful black beans with crispy skin on top to add texture. Ropa Vieja is tender braised shredded flank steak with black beans, rice, peppers, onions, plantains, and yucca. Don’t miss the zesty tomato sauce on the side that makes the dish.
One of the major showstoppers is the paella for two. A huge pile of perfectly cooked Maine lobster, mussels, clams, jumbo shrimp and Spanish chorizo arrives served over juicy Saffron rice cooked in homemade chicken stock. Of course I was pleased with the seafood and sausage, but I was also impressed with the rice, which achieved a perfect texture and flavor. Ledesma told me he always pays particular attention to rice, rinsing it repeatedly until the water runs clear, cooking it to the perfect temperature and using a proper stock and spices to ensure the flavor is right.
The other must-eat, which you might not choose on a Cuban menu, is the Bistec de Palomilla. For this steak, the kitchen ages a bone-in ribeye for a week, then trims it down to the center and grills it to perfection. It arrives perfectly medium rare, topped with garlic butter and served over a bright herb sauce. The sear combined with the tender meat and spices is to die for. If you’re a steak fan, don’t miss this one.
For dessert, vanilla ice cream served over freshly fried dough rolled in cinnamon is simple perfection and scaled to share.
Along with the Cuban cuisine, the Passport menu at Belle & James includes a special cocktail menu as well. I snagged a sip of several cocktails on my visit and all were quite tasty, but the clear winner was the Mojito. A twist on the traditional cocktail, Blue Chair Bay Coconut Rum combines with fresh pineapple chunks, mint leaves, and club soda for a tropical libation that goes down all too easily.
Make your reservation for the Passport Pop Up at Belle & James here.