Café La Trova

11 Feb. 2019
Julio Cabrera's little Cuban corner in Miami

The American bar scene’s obsession with Cuba has never been stronger. From the 20’s to the 50’s, US citizens would go and drink in Havana. Today, bartenders and bar owners are bringing the art of the Cuban cocktail to their door. You have BlackTail in New York, recreating the golden age of the Cuban drinking experience. You have Manolito, in New Orleans, a heartfelt tribute to today’s Havana bar scene. They’re far from being the only ones — and you will read about some of them in this very space in the near future. But last week opened what might very well be the most authentic Cuban cocktail embassy in the US — Miami’s Café La Trova.

We don’t use the word ‘embassy’ lightly: the bar is the brainchild of Julio Cabrera, the Cantinero’s unofficial ambassador in the United States. Julio, as Bar News reader will know, was born in Cuba where he started bartending. After a stint with Havana Club as brand ambassador in Italy and a couple of years managing hotel bars in Mexico, he headed to Miami where he’s been based ever since. Over the last few years, he has led countless American bartenders on educational trips to Cuba, creating a bridge between both bar cultures. 

After years of working for other people, Julio felt it was time to open his own place. For this, he joined forces with chef Michelle Bernstein. A James Beard Award winner, she met Julio when he was still working in Mexico and gave him his first Miami job at her restaurant Michy’s. Together, they designed La Trova as an all-day affair. There’s a Cuban-style coffee counter for all your morning needs, a restaurant, and of course a bar. Bernstein offers her personal take on Cuban classics such as arroz con pollo or lechon and bar nibs — the Spinach & Feta croquetas are an absolute must — while Julio, well, he does what Julio does… The cocktail menu ranges from the strictly faithful — one of the best Daiquiris you’re likely to drink — to the elegantly reinterpreted — the pineapple rum-based Nacional — and the creative drinks he has been known to come up with at previous bars. The La Trova Old Fashioned, with its ‘cafecito’ syrup and chocolate bitters, is a satisfying after dinner sipper, while the Yin & Tony is a clever play on Cuba’s reinterpretation of the Spanish craze for gigantic Gin & Tonics. 

Our favourite drink on the menu is the El Presidente. In particular because the words we’d use to describe a perfectly balanced Presidente — elegant and regal — are words we would use to describe the team Julio’s put together. And that really was the biggest surprise when we walked into the bar. Bartending is seen as a young man’s game — preferably bearded and tattooed. Julio’s is mostly made of Cuban cantineros, with years worth of experience in Cuba. For example, Barbaro Vega Molina, the cantinero who attended us first, worked until a few years ago at Havana’s Hotel Presidente. He is of course a member of the Asociación de Cantineros. Although the way they work and behave behind the bar is common to anyone familiar with Cuba, it’s very refreshing to see that style of bartending in action anywhere else. This being said, La Trova hides more than one bar. It wasn’t open when we visited, but at the back of the venue, Julio is setting up another space for more modern drinks. The bar is state-of-the-art and will also be used for training and education. Besides food and drinks, Café La Trova also offers cigar and music — with live bands and DJ’s from Thursday to Sunday. 

Café La Trova is clearly a labour of love. In a way, it’s a tribute to Julio’s father, who owned a bar in Cardenas until the late 60’s. There’s even a discreet altar to the man at one end of the backbar. It’s also and very obviously an homage to the great Cuban cocktail tradition. But it would be wrong to see it as a museum or an exercice in nostalgia. Located on Calle 8, once the beating heart of Miami’s Cuban community but now a place for tourists looking for la vida loca, Café La Trova stands out: it’s upscale, authentic and has an eye on the future. It will prove a magnet for discerning drinkers passing through town.

François Monti