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Cuba Libre Philadelphia, Pa. School lunch used to be cardboard pizza, undercooked Tatertots, apple sauce and a carton of milk, all for $1.25. But Cuba Libre in Philadelphia’s Old City combines food and an education with somewhat greater success — albeit at a greater price tag. Chef Joshua Friedberg, formerly of Spasso, presides over this classroom — a heavenly vision of Havana, complete with three-paddle fans turning lazily beneath the wide skylight. With the help of Pasion!’s Guillermo Pernot, who consulted on the Cuba Libre menu, he hopes to give Philadelphians an introduction to the flavorful, off-limits island nation. Here, the dinner menu is a Spanish textbook. Don’t worry if you took French in high school; there is a glossary, though no pronunciation guide. And the drink list — seemingly extra credit — is divided like a delicious dictionary of rum, mixed drinks, wine and beer. “Rum 101″ teaches that the fermented-sugar cane concoction is also known as “rhum,” “rumbullion” and “kill-devil,” the latter name derived from the belief that rum could cure illness. But the 17-country, 50-rum bar is more likely to tempt the devil in diners ($5-22). The Cuban cocktails quench with authentic recipes; the Cuba Libre, with which the restaurant shares its freedom cry, refreshes with white rum, cola and lime ($6). The cool mojito mixes light rum, hierba buena (a mint-like herb native to Castro’s country), lime, sugar-cane juice and orangey marasquino liqueur with a splash of soda ($7.50). There will be a test later, when the food comes. Can you identify each dish? Can you remember who ordered what? The waitstaff tries to help, but they are still pupils themselves; the restaurant only opened its borders in early December. Appetizers and entrees are instruction in history and geography. Cuba’s cuisine has benefited from African, Chinese and other influences, and its climate offers indigenous foods like malanga, a root vegetable with brown skin and purple-tinged flesh, and boniato, a white sweet potato. The boniato makes an appearance in the chef’s “cha cha cha” platter, a collection of appetizers ($22); these papas rellenas are also available as a separate lesson ($7.50). Ground beef flavored with olive and raisin is trapped inside a mashed boniato shell, coated in bread crumbs and lightly fried for a savory surprise. Lightly pickled cucumber escabeche adds an extra kick. Another sure step in the cha cha cha is the piquant tropical guava glaze — the con guayaba of the costillitas con guayaba ($9, separately). The pork-rib portion, however, is stingy with meat and difficult to eat. The plump grilled shrimp of the camarones a la parrilla ($10, separately) are familiar, but the generous dried mango and toasted coconut salsa deserves further research on the part of the diner. Only the satay de pollo is an exercise to be skipped ($7.50, separately). Gummy sweet plantains and peanut and cucumber salsa do not improve the tough marinated chicken. Chicken makes several more interesting appearances on the platos menu. Sweet plantain mash complements perfectly pan-seared pollo in the pechuga de pollo, served with black beans and a red-pepper mayonnaise ($16). Tender and slightly saffroned chicken is the advertised topic of the arroz con pollo, cooked and served in a cazuelita clay pot, but spicy sausage hidden under the rice, roasted peppers and green peas takes over the dish ($16). The ropa vieja, a Cuban beef brisket stew with plantains and white rice, is an intimidating mountain of brown until it is tasted ($18). Dishes for future classes include lechon asado, pulled pig with sweet-potato puree and black-bean broth ($19); mahi-mahi with a black-bean crust, tomato-anise broth, clams and a West African kale ($17); and a vegetarian paella of zucchini, cauliflower, calabaza (South American pumpkin), peppers, mushrooms and, of course, plantains ($17). Keeping your mind on the subject at hand — the food — isn’t easy. There is too much to explore, to absorb, in this little Havana, created by cinematic set design firms. The two-story space, awash in the beiges and pastels of faded photographs, recreates a Cuban village. There are palm trees. There are shuttered windows waiting to be opened wide. There are waiters in white linen guayaberas. And there is Cuban cigar smoke — no one tells the man at the next table not to smoke in school; it’s part of the lesson plan. In fact, a Cuesta-Rey Caravelle cigar box arrives at the end of dinner, but there is no fragrant graduation gift inside, only the check. Does Cuba Libre, itself, make the grade? Give the atmosphere, a hothouse Havana behind plate glass in cold Old City, an A-plus. And the chef gets a checkmark for his effort to inform the city’s taste buds. But the kitchen needs to do its homework on some dishes. Restaurant: Cuba Libre Location: 10 S. 2nd St., Philadelphia, Pa. Hours: Serves dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. A late-night menu is available until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. The bar is open until 2 a.m. nightly. Reservations: 215-627-0666.

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