Literally translated, Casona means "big house." And
this particular "big house," former home to numerous medical
professionals since its 1905 construction, was purchased by Lawrence Grillo and
partners Mark and Michele Infantado in 2004 and lovingly renovated and restored.
Now boasting handsome hardwood floors, homey fireplace, deep red & yellow
walls, and huge wraparound porch, the building -- replete with Muzak --
pulsates to a decidedly Latin beat.
On a more frivolous note, Casona might also very well stand for
"cleavage," as daring décolletage appears to be everywhere
present -- both on the part of the young hostess staff and the cavorting
clientele. There is absolutely no question that Casona is the restaurant
of the moment, the place to see and be seen, attracting the usual -- and
unusual -- conglomeration of beautiful people, wandering wannabes, assorted
zombies, and gastronomic gawkers. Given the high quality of the cuisine,
however, and the more than reasonable prices (and the fact that you may BYOB),
an infinitely diverse variety of human flora and fauna is surely to be
expected... ditto the noise level, especially in the interior dining rooms,
which can be formidable.
Chef Carmelo Petit's Venezuelan roots are palpable as his kitchen sends
forth a tempting array of traditional Cuban and Latino dishes imbued with an
intriguing contemporary flair. And portions are certainly ample; you aren't
likely to depart the scene with hunger pangs still nipping at your innards. The
only flaw is that the appetizer choices are limited and basically smaller
variations on many of the entrée themes. That hardly matters, however, as the
establishment's salads and soups make excellent alternative starters.
The ensalada Caesar ($7.00), for example, features a sheaf of crisp
romaine enveloped in Serrano ham sided by a goat cheese crouton and anointed
with just the proper amount of zesty dressing. The ensalada Casona
($8.00), on the other hand, headlines spring greens awash with slices of
avocado, mango, tomato, and a sprightly citrus vinaigrette. Chicken breast may
be added to any salad ($4.00), grilled shrimp ($6.00), or seared tuna ($9.00),
offering a nice variety across the board.
The classic black bean soup ($6.00) is also an exceedingly satisfying
prelude. The beans are whole, not puréed, and endowed with just enough spice to
invigorate rather than incinerate. For something a bit more exotic, however, be
sure to try the chupe ($8.00), a traditional Peruvian soup embellished
with bits of chicken breast, cheese, potato, corn, celery, and carrot awash in
a lively seasoned broth.
Among the appetizers proper, the yucca fries ($8.00) are something of a
must, crisp yet tender tubers companioned by fresh guacamole and an addictive
mojo garlic sauce. Also a must try are the ceviche de camarones ($11.00)
-- pristinely fresh shrimp swimming in a martini glass backed by a colorful
citrus marinade and plantain crisps -- and the habana maduro ($10.00), a
ripe fried split whole plantain stuffed with picadillo (Cuban-seasoned
ground sirloin) or lechon (citrus-marinated, slow roasted pork). This
latter is hardly diet food, but it is utterly delicious and simply impossible
Casona's entrées are exceptional, and the benchmark paella
($24.00) should surely top your dining agenda. The dish includes bay scallops,
clams, mussels, shrimp, chorizo, and morsels of chicken breast, as well
as several items not specifically mentioned on the printed menu: namely,
octopus and calamari. All are perfectly prepared, including the octopus and
calamari, which are incredibly tender. The saffron rice -- absolutely the real
thing -- is delightfully moist and flavorful.
Rice also plays a strong supporting role with both the arroz con pollo
Cubano ($16.00) and the lechon asado ($15.00). The former, bits of
chicken in the company of pungent green olives, chorizo, and sweet
peppers, receives a good deal of pizzazz from a hefty beer reduction; the
latter, a disc of citrus-marinated Cuban-style pork, is crowned with a tiara of
The salmon filet ($19.00) is beautifully grilled and set on a luscious yucca
cake topped with crunchy green beans. But the culinary catalyst that brings it
all together is an extraordinary fumet, a concentrated stock enlivened
with an assertive yet delicate black bean essence.
Beef also holds a prominent place on Mr. Petit's bill of fare. You may, for
example, indulge in the ropa vieja ($15.00), traditional Cuban shredded
beef aided and abetted by white rice and plantains, or the excellent 8-ounce
filet mignon ($24.00) spruced up with a zesty thyme sauce and mound of
addictive mashed potatoes. My nod, however, would surely go to the remarkably
flavorful currasco skirt steak paired with yucca fries and a perfectly
complementary cremini mushroom ragout ($18.00).
As I noted at the outset, portions are quite ample; but if you're in the
mood to do a little mixing and matching, I would heartily endorse several side
dishes. The boniato ($6.00), a savory white-sweet potato mash is highly
recommended... ditto the arroz moro ($4.00), black beans & rice, and
the superlative saffron rice ($4.00).
Desserts, most of which are imported from off campus, are undoubtedly the
restaurant's weakest link. The top choice, however, is the made-in-house tres
leches ($7.00), a sumptuous layer cake saturated with whole, evaporated,
and sweet condensed milk. Though not made on the premises, the cheesecake
($6.00) is also quite good, as is the potent espresso ($1.75 single/$2.75
Even in Collingswood, a community that has been undergoing a major restaurant
renaissance during the past few years, Casona is still causing quite a
stir among the area's culinary cognoscenti. If you're in the mood for a taste
of authentic Caribbean cuisine, it is a dining delight that is not to be
Cuisine: Cuban/Nuevo Latino
Hours: Luncheria: Tues - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat,
5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Brunch: Sat & Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Coffeehouse: Tues - Sun, 10:00 a.m. - Closing; Restaurant closed on Monday.
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Street parking only; free weekends and after 6:00 p.m.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
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