Brett Scott, who comes from a family of restaurateurs, is a lover of Hispanic food and culture, and that becomes abundantly clear when you visit La Cocina, the Cuban-style restaurant he opened this winter in the old Washington County courthouse.
The building itself is quite impressive, with beautiful hardwood floors polished to a glossy sheen and original brickwork exposed. A center hall gives way to a larger dining room on one side and smaller, more intimate rooms for groups on the other. The building is not handicapped accessible, and making it so poses some challenges because of its historic status, but Scott says he hopes to come up with a solution this year. (La Cocina also has no liquor license yet.)
The cuisine is essentially all Latin, with sofrito-based dishes ranging from pork, beef and chicken to treats such as deep-fried plaintains, empanadas, ceviche and, for dessert, luscious flan. Scott, whose family owned the House of Scotts on Lake George, says he learned a lot of what he knows about Cuban food from a girlfriend’s grandmother in Florida. Based on the food we had at La Cocina, Grandma knew a thing or two.
We wanted to sample some of the appetizers before we had our entrees and decided on the camarones de coco (coconut shrimp for $6.95) and the papas rellenas (fried mashed potato balls stuffed with picadillo, a seasoned ground beef with peppers, olives and cherry tomatoes for $5.50).
The shrimp were large and crusted with toasted coconut, served over a dollop of maduro, which is a mash of sweet fried plaintains. The mashed potato balls were golden crispy on the outside and filled with savory flavors on the inside. They were an interesting combination of textures and tastes, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. My dinner guest, who has a healthy appetite, groused mildly at the serving sizes, and I had to gently remind him that these were tapas, not entrees.
Other appetizer possibilities at La Cocina include Palta Reina de Chile, which is avocado stuffed with shrimp or ham with yellow rice for $5.95, gazpacho for $3.75 or black bean soup, also $3.75.
I ordered the Cuban ribs for my main course, a special of the evening for $15.95, and was glad I did. Marinated pork ribs were cooked until the meat was fork tender and falling off the bone. It was served in a sweet and savory red sauce that was a great accompaniment to the pork and came with rice and spicy black beans.
My guest also was lured by the specials, settling on a chicken and ham dish (pollo con jamo) for $16.95 that included onions and peppers in a mojo-style sauce. The chicken breast fillets were tender, moist and flavorful and the ham provided a smoky element. Like the ribs, the chicken was accompanied by black beans and rice.
The rice and black beans were served on the same plate so you could mix them together for a traditional, if declasse, combination and I certainly didn’t resist the urge to do so. The beans were strongly spiced, and I found that to be a good thing.
Entree choices off the menu include Biske de Cafe, a coffee-crusted sirloin steak with caramelized onions for $16.95, Ropa Vieja, which is shredded skirt steak with onions, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes for $12.95, Boliche or Cuban pot roast of tender beef chorizo, potatoes, onions and olives for $14.95 and Pollo Mojito, a half-chicken marinated in mojito sauce and then baked ($12.95). Mojo or mojito sauce is the Cuban standard marinade, a combination of garlic, oregano, salt and pepper and sour orange juice and, depending on what you’re marinating, sometimes olive oil.
Of course you can also order paella, the classic long-simmering dish that includes shellfish, chicken, chorizo and yellow rice, for $19.95.
La Cocina offers a children’s menu, and Scott notes proudly that he offers healthful choices such as sautéed chicken rather than deep fried, and chicken or beef empanadas, which he says the kids love.
We concluded our meal with strong coffees and the classic Latin dessert, a velvety sweet flan ($3.95), a chilled custard topped with caramel sauce with whipped cream on the side.
Our thoroughly enjoyable meal, including appetizers, entrees, sodas, dessert and coffees came to $80 with tax and tip.
In French cuisine, it seems life begins with mirepoix (meer-pwah) — celery, carrots and onions or leeks and sometimes garlic, all finely chopped and used to provide the flavor base of soups and stews and certain sauces. In Latin cuisine, it’s sofrito, which differs from country to country but generally is a combination of onions, garlic and sweet red peppers or green bells, along with oregano, cumin, bay leaf and oil and, if you want to be really authentic, some culantro, not to be confused with cilantro, though its flavor is similar.