Passing the Bar: Cienfuegos

Written by James Mulcahy on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.

Another day, another secret bar. yawn. you’ll find the staircase that leads to Cienfuegos tucked away in the back of the Cuban sandwich shop Carteles. and while the hidden bar shtick has seen its day, there is definitely a reason to hit this spot, which is decked out like an old-school Cuban social club. the drink menu is full of rum punches designed by mixologist Charlotte Voisey. think getting punched is a bad thing? not after you put your face into one of these bowls.

This ain’t the watered down Kool-aid that you spiked with Georgi Vodka at your prom. the punches are well-balanced concoctions that will stimulate your taste buds where you least expect it. the anchor is a must-try combination of Seven tiki rum, apricot brandy, guava and lime. If you were ever to stop spending all your money at bars and go sailing in the Caribbean, you’d want a pitcher of this smooth and fruity concoction on the boat. the Vesperone is a heartier choice for those who usually shun tropical drinks. the Zacapa rum is balanced with a hit of rye and some green chartreuse—while Jimmy Buffet wouldn’t approve, ernest hemingway certainly would. the alabazam would have been hemingway’s second round (or 14th, knowing Papa). It’s a tart and potent mix of appleton rum, maraschino liqueur, Lillet rouge and bitters.

The very extensive cocktail list isn’t great for sampling. If you’re a party of two or more, those $14 glasses really add up. Go for the punchbowls. you’ll get at least five cups out of a small one, making this a deal to remember. except you won’t, because you’ll be on the floor after one too many ladles. there are also options for larger parties, with the biggest priced at $100 a bowl. you’re getting your money’s worth with these lush offerings—a small child could swim in them… for a few extra dollars, it could possibly be arranged.

There are a few food options so you can put something in your stomach to avoid getting “seasick” (puking after drinking too much punch). the food takes a backseat to libations, though. In fact, everything takes a back seat to the punches, including the service. and there’s the rub. Maybe a laid-back style like this would fly in 1960s Cuba, but in modern day new york, with cocktail bars aplenty, it’s hard to find an excuse. although the wait-staff seemed well-intentioned—and it didn’t hurt that one was the spitting image of Scarlett Johansson—the kitchen couldn’t seem to keep up. the veggie empanadas and meatballs we ordered appeared after an extended interlude. our table wasn’t the only one affected: the neighboring couple was miffed when the wrong order arrived after a long wait.

Cienfuegos may have just gotten up and running, but when you’re paying $15 for a glass of punch, you shouldn’t want to slap someone because of sub-par service. at those prices, you should also be able to pony up for the check however you like. When the bill came, artfully stuffed in a Cuban cigar box, our table plopped down two credit cards. a server came back with the explanation that the system “can’t split checks for some reason.” When pressed (paying more than half would have meant a trip to the poor house), the machine suddenly worked again. Could it be some sort of old-school Cuban Santeria? Probably not. While there was plenty of that magic swimming in those silver punch bowls, thinking this spot is on par with the city’s other top drink dens is just an illusion.

>> Cienfuegos 443 E. 6th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 212-614-6818.