28 Feb. 2019
New Orleans' Tribute to the Art of the Cantineros

We were very moved a couple of weeks ago to discover La Trova, with its team of experienced Cuban cantineros. Another bar we really fell for recently is Manolito, in New Orleans. This time, no Cuban has been involved. But the American duo behind the bar undoubtedly deserves the title. They all have experienced the magic of Cuba first hand — on Julio Cabrera’s study trips, for example — and they’ve channeled the experience into their bar, opened about a year ago.

Much of what Manolito is about is in the name: it’s a tribute to Manuel ‘Manolito’ Carbajo, a head bartender at Floridita who tragically died a little over two years ago. Manolito had been a great friend to two of the bar’s owners, Chris Hannah and Nick Detrich, with Hannah telling us, a couple of months after his friend’s passing, of their last encounter — Manolito gave him a Floridita jacket and had him pass behind the legendary bar to make a Daiquiri. 

Unsurprisingly, the bar pays tribute to Manolito, Floridita and all the classic cantineros who have helped upheld the tradition over the years. Even the cheeky coasters — « la pequeña cuña » (the small cradle) — references this rich history and Floridita’s well-known ‘Cradle of the Daiquiri tag. On our visit, though, we were reminded of the newer wave of independent bars and paladares that have brought some very welcome diversity to Havana’s nightlife over the last few years. Small and divided between a ground floor bar area and a mezzanine dining area, Manolito’s bears more than a passing resemblance to O’Reilly’s, the essential Havana gin bar. Both Detrich and Hannah have enjoyed their visit there, but above all the kinship underlines something we already noted when we profiled Cane & Table, Detrich’s previous bar: New Orleans’ French Quarter and Old Havana share important architectural traits. 

And while we have remarked previously on other historical links between both cities, we have left another one unexplored: frozen drinks are ubiquitous in New Orleans, with the Frozen Daiquiri an ever popular classic. However, most New Orleans Frozen Daiquiri are slushy messes, with artificial flavours and lots (lots!) of sugar. At Manolito’s, the team seems bent on setting things right: half of the menu is devoted to blended cocktails — they are of course the perfect drinks for hot and humid weather — done the right way. The Frozen Daiquiri is made as the owners have been taught at Floridita — no surprise here. From there, they take the liberty to riff on the formula, with a spectacular Jazz Daiquiri, made with cacao and a few grains of coffee, and the Daiquiri Menta — made with, well, mint. Even the much reviled Strawberry Daiquiri makes here a strong case for its relevance.

The other half of the cocktail menu is dedicated to shaken, stirred and thrown classic. Their Presidente, one of the best we’ve had last year, appeared in our Perfect Presidente series, but their Mojitos, shaken Daiquiris and Hotel Nacional c’est pas juste appelé le Nacional ??) are equally rewarding. The Sazerac also makes an appearance — this is New Orleans after all — and so does Sloppy Joe’s Special, a drink from a Cuban bartender who had learned the ropes in NOLA before opening his legendary and very touristy Havana bar.

Those familiar with Chris Hannah and Nick Detrich’s previous work will not be surprised by the drinks quality. But Manolito is markedly different from the bars where they made their names. Hannah spent over a decade at French 75, an institution where bartenders wore very old school uniforms. In that respect, Manolito is much more informal. It’s got that relaxed, neighbourhood vibe… At Cane & Table, Detrich’s drink program reflected his inner geekiness — it was an exploration of the prehistory of rum drinks. With such a central role for blended drinks and very well known classics on the menu, Manolito’s more about having a great time with friends around a fantastic drinks and a fine platter of Cuban food than about delving into the history of Caribbean rum. We assume that the duo’s upcoming Jewel of the South, a tribute to Joseph Santini’s great 19th century watering home, will have all of that. Manolito, though, is different. And maybe, because it’s unassuming and less ambitious, the bar cannot aspire to hit the world’s best list. But who cares, really, when all that really matters, when it comes to it, is that great drink at that ideal moment in that welcoming space? Cuban cantineros realise that, and so do the honorary cantineros behind Manolito.

François Monti