Cuban history is rife with romance and mystery. The allure of Cuba’s cocktail culture can be traced to bars such as El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway spent sweltering afternoons while a cantinero, or bartender, poured daiquiris.
Manolito, a petite cocktail bar and restaurant tucked into a stretch of Dumaine Street in the French Quarter, pays homage to bars like El Floridita and its cantineros such as Manuel Carbajo Aguiar, a beloved figure at the establishment, who died last year.
Key to a cantinero’s job are hospitality and the ability to make a blended drink with calculated precision to ensure the slushy and refreshing cocktail is not too icy or overly sweet. Veteran bartenders Nick Detrich, Chris Hannah and Konrad Kantor have perfected the craft at Manolito, and their well-coiffed cocktails are tributes to their inspiration. The Papa Doble is inspired by one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks, a powerful blend of rum, maraschino liqueur and grapefruit. The excellent El Floridita daiquiri is a slushy mix of rum, lime juice and maraschino liqueur.
Though cocktails are the bar’s raison d’etre, a carefully curated short menu complements the boozy offerings, many of which beg for something salty and substantive.
One easily could spend an evening here enjoying a couple of daiquiris and marinated olives or the fried chickpeas, which are salty and crunchy with a mellow, smoky spice and hints of lemon and lime.
Golden-fried croquetas are filled with ham and cheese and served with an herb sauce that falls somewhere between a salsa verde and an Italian salmoriglio, pungent with garlic and bursting with citrus.
Larger appetites might look to the country’s most widely emulated sandwich, the Cubano. The classic version here has thick slices of ham, plenty of cheese, tangy yellow mustard and mojo-roasted pork with notes of cumin and citrus.
Ropa vieja is a highlight, and as the only sizable entree, it’s served family style. The slow-cooked shredded beef is impossibly tender, juicy and full of warm spice. That stew also can be ordered as an appetizer atop arepas, griddled pale golden corn cakes that ooze with melted cheese. Pickled vegetables including carrots, bell peppers and cauliflower deliver a punch of brine and acidity, which balances the earthy and rich dish.
For dessert, a coconut flan has an amber caramel top that imbues sweet, almost burnt toffee notes. It’s good for a cooling and sweet cap to a meal or as a midday pick-me-up with a cup of strong cafe Cubano.
Though part of restaurant’s appeal is derived from its cozy and charming atmosphere, the space is small and the buzzy ground-floor bar area gets packed easily. It’s not a conducive spot for larger groups to gather for a sit-down meal.
Manolito is a tribute to Cuba’s cocktail culture, as a romantic snapshot of a specific time and place and with a spirit that is very much of the here and now.