When Jose Garces opened his latest venture, Rosa Blanca, [his 15th restaurant nationally and 7th in Philadelphia] he set out to create a “home-style Cuban diner experience.” In Jose’s words, “ ‘Cuban’ because of my love for family and travel to Cuba and Cuban Miami, and a ‘diner’ to recreate the casual ‘counter-experience.’ ” Garces and his creative agency went through over 40 potential restaurant names including Bayamba, the Cuban Spoon, and Corazon de Cuba before settling on Rosa Blanca, the subject and title of a famous Jose Martí poem. Last week, I, and 59 of my closest classmates, had the rare opportunity of being hosted at Rosa Blanca by Chef Garces himself. As part of the OPIM 699 Service/Hospitality Management class, Garces and his General Counsel, Rob Keddie, graciously spent a few hours of their evening talking us through Rosa Blanca from concept to design to renovation, along with sharing other best practices of managing a culinary-driven brand.
From the exterior, the restaurant has the appearance of a 1950’s style diner a la “the Max” (can you place it?). The interior also pays homage to a diner with its atmosphere, black and white checkered floors and booths abounding. While mostly classic, chalkboard specials and all, the space feels contemporary with modern furniture, lighting accents and surprisingly rosy hues, but is decidedly different than the dimly lit, dark wooden dining room behind the diner.
As the Whartonites descended upon Rosa Blanca, we were greeted with refreshing minty and sweet mojitos to sip on as we grazed on yucca chips and “Cuban-style” guacamole, made unexpectedly sweet with smoked pineapple. Next, we sampled trays of golden brown fried and baked empanadas, each filled with Spanish style ‘jamon y queso’ or Cuban picadillo (ground beef, onions and olives), both salty and satisfying. These few appetizers did the trick in whetting our appetite, prompting a few of us to venture up to the main dining room in order to sample the rest of the menu.
As co-President of the Cocktail Club and foolish lover of $14 concoctions, I must say I was a bit disappointed with our cocktails. I tried various cocktails (in the name of writing an exhaustive review, I promise….) and unfortunately none blew me away. After munching on a tasty Cuban version of the Brazilian pão de queijo (think really delicious cheesy bread with a sweet and spicy guava butter on the side), most of us were pleased with our food selections. Katy McCarthy and I went splitsies (Obviously. To all you splitsy haters, you’re just wrong.) and opted for the charred and vinegary octopus (pulpo en escabeche), the grilled pork chop topped with pink pickled onions (chuletta de puerco), and garlic sautéed spinach and caramelized plantains. Others ordered fish ceviche and the classic Cubano sandwich (roasted pork, smoked ham, gruyere, pickles and mustard). While the Cubano, heavy on the dry bread and light on all the other stuff, left something to be desired, the octopus and pork were both quite tender, flavorful and well executed. The sides were also executed well – you won’t go wrong with Rosa Blanca’s fried plantains and garlicky greens. We debated ordering the desserts, but some last minute Breck packing beckoned us home.
Our expectations had been high after Garces praised Rosa Blanca as an authentic home-style Cuban diner, but unfortunately his new spot may have slightly missed the mark. The menu seemed a bit of a hodge podge of all things Latin, and our bill certainly did not reflect the “diner value” Garces had touted earlier. That said, we are very appreciative of the Garces team’s hospitality and time, and will continue to patronize our favorites like Village Whiskey, Tinto, and Garces Trading. As with any Whartonite dining experience – there was good food, “good” drink, lots of laughs, and plenty of “constructive” criticism (luckily, this time it was the food being critiqued) – but above all, the best people. Hubert De Blignieres, Nikki Ferszt, Lauren Tulp, and Katy, the next drink is on me!