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Collingswood Restaurants NJ Reviews by Name Jersey Shore Washington DC Reviews

Casona
563 Haddon Avenue
Collingswood, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 854-5555

By The Artful Diner
January 22, 2007

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 to resist.

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 plantain slices.

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 double).

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 missed.

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
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Street parking only; free weekends and after 6:00 p.m.
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.mycasona.com

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