The culinary team of owner Dominick Splendorio and chef Tadahiro Hayasaka at Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar has created a menu that will make it hard for you to decide between the plate before you and the delicious rum drink Splendorio just served you. Luckily, you won’t have to.
Splendorio, who’s always had a thing for Mexican food and culture, began his New Haven restaurant career in 1996 when he and a partner opened Whole Enchilada on Whitney Avenue. Then in 2007 he bought Cafe Java on Elm Street, but kept his eye on this Orange Street spot with a South Beach feel. It seemed like the perfect place to launch a restaurant linked to his third-generation Cuban heritage. Next Splendorio needed to line up a great chef to make the restaurant soar. That’s when he connected with Hayasaka, and Zafra was born in April 2011. “Chef Haya,” as he’s known, used to own Haya’s Sushi at the corner of Trumbull Street and Whitney Avenue. He now considers himself “Cubanese.”
The restaurant is small and the entire staff pitches in, as if they were all one family. Splendorio will be busboy, dishwasher, waiter, bartender, whatever is needed, and so does the rest of the staff.
The restaurant gives Splendorio an outlet for his lifelong love of rum. He offers 155 different rums … some are great straight in a snifter, others mixed into a killer cocktail.
The food’s presentation is just as important as the flavor. “You’re eating the food with your eyes,” first says Splendorio. Splendorio says his food is a marriage of sweet and savory, serving traditional Cuban food with a contemporary flair. Many diners are so impressed they take photos of the food before tucking in to every tasty morsel.
When you combine the upbeat Cuban music in the background, the vintage Cuba posters, the spectacular food, the many rum choices, and the outgoing staff, you’re sure to have a tropical island evening in this small New England city.
Restaurant Website: http://zafrarumbar.com/
• The Detes: 259 Orange St., New Haven • 203-859-5342 • Open daily, usually at 11:30 a.m. (later on weekends) until 10:00 p.m. (later Thursday through Saturday)
• Price Range: Appetizers $8-13, Salads $11, Entrees $13-24, Drinks $8-12
• Style of Food: Cuban with a contemporary feel and a Japanese-style presentation
• What’s in a name?: Zafra is the term for harvesting sugar cane
• Most popular dishes: Lechon asado (slow-roasted pork), coconut-crusted tilapia, and Ropa Vieja (beef stew)
• Rum, rum, rum: 155 different rums, many for sipping, others used in delicious mixed drinks
• What’s unusual about your restaurant? Splendorio says, “The presentation of the food is just as important as the flavor. You’re eating food with your eyes before you begin.”