Lila Kalick: A flair for tasty Cuban fare

BY LILA KALICK
Local Cuisine Columnist
Published March 8, 2011

Whitewashed from the inside out, Frita Batidos on W. Washington St. must have been some Tom Sawyer of a job to complete. The newest venture from former “Top Chef” contestant Eve Aronoff, this self-proclaimed “snack bar” has been stirring up buzz since opening last December.

In January, Aronoff announced that her other restaurant, French-influenced Eve in Kerrytown, would be closing. But ever-resilient, she decided to go against the old “Top Chef” adage, it's time to “pack up your knives and go.”

Instead, she has blessed us with her newest project — a Cuban-inspired eatery that even in its infancy seems to have enough steam to carry itself past the ephemeral stage of restaurant-hood. Frita Batidos’s relaxed atmosphere and host of unique flavors provide the perfect combination to suit the cosmopolitan tastes of its Ann Arbor clientele.

Inside, customers order at the bar, then take a seat at the communal-style picnic tables where waiters bring meals on individual trays. People seemed to be complaining about the seating style, which to be honest, was a bit uncomfortable, but not a deal breaker.

The choice of white walls, fluorescent lighting and stainless steel serving platters might have proven oppressive, but a series of tropical touches, like a large painted flower, fresh limes cradled in net hammocks hanging at the edges of the tables and a floor-to-ceiling window lining the entrance save the space from feeling too sterile. In fact, the whiteness is surprisingly enjoyable. It contrasts pleasantly with the colorful food before you, allowing the meal to take its rightful place as the main event.

In terms of cuisine, Aronoff cooks up her take on some Cuban classics. The eatery’s featured dish, the frita, is akin to a burger — but beyond. A traditional Cuban frita consists of ground chorizo grilled in patty form, served on an egg bun with shoestring French fries on top. Frita Batidos’s interpretation of the sandwich is available in the conventional chorizo form but also in turkey, fish and vegetarian black bean versions.

Aronoff's frita comes with a lovable portion of shoestrings on a brioche bun. Mayonnaise spreads in sweet chili, lemon-scented and chipotle varieties accompany and can be ordered on the side. If you’re bold, you can order it “loco” — adding lime salsa, a fried egg, coleslaw and Muenster cheese to the mix. It is fantastic.

Fried plantains are the perfect addition, tossed with cilantro garlic butter. A pitfall of plantains is that they’re often too oily. These aren’t — they’re surprisingly light, almost tangy. One order will cost you $6, but they’re big enough for three to share.

Frita Batidos also prepares some other notable sandwiches, like the “Inspired Cuban,” which features lemongrass-roasted pork, thick-cut bacon, ham, Gruyere cheese, cornichons and their chipotle mayo on Cuban bread. The open-faced grilled cheese, an equally exciting option, is made with Muenster, tomato and red onion on brioche.

Batidos, the other half of the joint’s name (so they must be important), are shakes made with fresh fruit and cream milk sweetened with honey. They come in a variety of flavors, like mocha, sour orange and cajeta — goat’s milk caramel, which is also used to make some of the restaurant’s coffee drinks. The coconut cream batido is not to be believed. Each comes with its own mini-umbrella. Who doesn’t love a mini-umbrella? Impractical but appreciated — feels like being at the beach.

Also impractical, and a little misguided, is the way Frida Batidos serves its juices. Ginger-lime juice comes in a plastic bag with a straw. But the juice inside is great — spicy and sweet, simultaneously. It will leave you wanting more of it and less of its absurd packaging.

A diverse breakfast menu contends with the regular fare. I choose the veggie Cuban omelet — stuffed with black beans, Picadillo and Muenster cheeses. The dish was served atop a banana leaf with spicy potatoes, guacamole and rum-soaked pineapple. It was, in a word, heavenly. Also worth complimenting is the coffee. The drinks available are unique and flavorful, a good break from the regular routine. All in all, breakfast was the perfect speed, snazzy without trying too hard.

Despite minor kinks in presentation, like faulty juice packing and picnic table seating that perhaps isn’t everyone’s bag, this place really hit the mark. It’s exactly the kind of restaurant Ann Arbor needs and wants — cutting-edge cuisine that’s not too precious or pretentious. It's a dining experience that’s thrill-packed and frill free, where the food is pedestrian with no less pedigree. Cheers to Aronoff for stepping outside the box and cooking up something we can really sink our teeth into.