Food & Drink

Copa opens in Durham, doing Cuban food like you've never seen

Copa is the second restaurant for Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull, who closed Old Havana Sandwich Shop last month so they could open their new Cuban restaurant.
Copa is the second restaurant for Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull, who closed Old Havana Sandwich Shop last month so they could open their new Cuban restaurant. Drew Jackson

One month after the Old Havana Sandwich Shop in Durham closed, its owners will open the farm-to-table Cuban restaurant Copa Friday on Main Street.

It isn't often that a truly unique concept comes around, but Copa looks to be that. Often new restaurants aim to be either modern or authentic, but Copa aims at historic, cooking a nearly lost Cuban cuisine more heavily influenced by Europe than Latin America.

Husband and wife owners Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull closed their Old Havana Sandwich Shop in February after seven years serving Cuban lunches and brunches. The sandwiches of Old Havana will survive at Copa, but Matos and Turnbull have livened up the vibe and added a dinner menu and cocktails.

Copa takes over the former Revolution spot on West Main Street, across from Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas. Matos and Turnbull bought the 5,500-square-foot space and launched a four-month renovation. They built a larger kitchen than they had at Old Havana and finished the floors with vibrant handmade tiles and the windows with stained glass. Matos continues to lead the kitchen and Turnbull the business side of the restaurant.

Copa16.jpg
Copa takes over the former Revolution spot on West Main Street, a 5,500-square-foot space that's been renovated. Owners built a larger kitchen than they had at Old Havana and finished the floors with vibrant handmade tiles and the windows with stained glass. jdjackson@newsobserver.com Drew Jackson

Copa will start with lunch service this week and looks to add dinner and brunch in a week or so.

The lunch menu is the Old Havana you may be familiar with: signature cubanos and other roast pork sandwiches, plus "pork-free" ones like a pre-revolutionary Havana Sloppy Joe, one with chicken simmered in tomatoes and white wine and another featuring braised cod fish.

Sides include fried plantain chips, sweet maduros and hushpuppies spiked with — what else? — pork.

The dinner menu is where Copa separates itself from Old Havana, with a menu comprised largely of tapas and small plates. The techniques are often European, channeling Cuba's 19th century history and its influences of Spain, Africa and Asia.

"There's a misconception that Cuban food has to be very simple, very basic and very cheap," Turnbull said. "We wanted to introduce people to the idea of Cuban food as delicious and pleasing, but that it's also diverse and can use a wide range of ingredients and flavors, ingredients grown right here in this area."

Dinner includes Cuban versions of paella, rabbit cooked in a white wine sauce, duck cooked in its own fat and poached North Carolina monkfish. There's also housemade charcuterie, including two versions of pate and a blood sausage.

For small bites or snacks, Matos and Turnbull invented their own word, cachitos, essentially meaning bite-size. Here, that means plantains stuffed with pork and fried in lard, asparagus with poached duck eggs, seasoned with garlic, saffron, cinnamon and cloves and in the summer, tomatoes stuffed with mushrooms, cabbage and Manchego cheese and roasted slowly in the oven.

Copa looks to Prohibition for its cocktails, serving boozy glimpses through time to when thirsty Americans traveled to Havana to whet their whistle. Aaron Stockdale is the beverage director, and Turnbull said standouts so far are a play on a French 75, Una Rosa Blana, here with Spanish cava rose, rosewater and Durham's Conniption Gin, and a mojito.

"I have to tell you, it's the best mojito I've had, second only to the one I had watching the sun set over the water in Cuba," Turnbull said.

Copa is at 107 West Main St., in Durham. Info: copadurham.com

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
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