EAT­ING WELL IN HA­VANA

Cuban culi­nary scene is thriv­ing, one ex-pat re­turns home

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY GINA BIRCH

Cuban culi­nary scene is thriv­ing

If you think Cuban food con­sists only of black beans, rice, plan­tains and pressed sand­wiches, think again. The culi­nary scene of Ha­vana is thriv­ing with in­ven­tive, cre­ative cui­sine.

I of­ten hear com­plaints from Amer­i­cans who have re­cently trav­eled to Cuba and were, more of­ten than not, dis­ap­pointed by the food. Clearly they did not go to the right places.

The best food in Ha­vana is found in the pal­adares, res­tau­rants in pri­vate homes not en­dorsed by but still taxed by the gov­ern­ment. Culi­nary ex­perts of­ten com­pare gov­ern­men­towned es­tab­lish­ments to big chains in the United States; the qual­ity and hos­pi­tal­ity are not al­ways the same as the mo­mand-pop places.

Vista Mar was among the first pal­adares to open in Ha­vana, 21 years ago. We dined around the pool of this 1950s wa­ter­front home, with groovy mu­sic play­ing in the back­ground and a spec­tac­u­lar view of the wa­ter.

“The restau­rant was orig­i­nally up­stairs in the owner’s liv­ing room, and she cooked,” says man­ager Ay­mara Gar­ciga. “She’s 84 now, and we have a pro­fes­sional chef.” Vista Mar now has a down­stairs din­ing area re­ferred to as the grill, while the up­stairs menu of­fers more Mediter­ranean op­tions.

Not all res­tau­rants in Ha­vana have wine, and the se­lec­tion is of­ten lim­ited, but at Vista Mar, Gar­ciga says, “The wine list is an im­por­tant part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s dif­fi­cult be­cause you don’t find every day the same wine. You have to go to a lot of stores in Ha­vana.”

Our table was over­flow­ing with dishes, in­clud­ing a vel­vety pump­kin soup, de­lec­ta­ble grilled oc­to­pus, hearty white beans and chorizo, mouth­wa­ter­ing mahi ce­viche, per­fectly seared filet mignon with a creamy plan­tain purée and pep­per mojo, and a seafood plat­ter gen­er­ously loaded with shrimp, lob­ster and a chunk of fish.

Res­tau­rants in Ha­vana are truly farm and fish­er­man to fork; the food is bright, col­or­ful and fla­vor­ful. In­gre­di­ent short­ages and im­port re­stric­tions, how­ever, can af­fect what’s be­ing served.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the fa­mous Cuban sand­wich. Find­ing it is rare, as flour is on the list of "en­dan­gered" in­gre­di­ents, putting bread in short sup­ply.

You will find the sand­wich at Ho­tel Na­cional, a place that set the stan­dard for el­e­gance and glam­our back in the day. Not all of our sand­wiches were pressed equally, but they were a de­light on the ter­race while lis­ten­ing to live mu­sic, gaz­ing across the lush gar­dens and into the blue wa­ters of the Gulf of Mex­ico.

The mojitos served in the ho­tel’s Bar His­torico are topped with a dark rum floater and a dash of bit­ters. The out­door bar serves the tra­di­tional ver­sion: a healthy scoop of sugar, lime juice and yerba buena (mint) mud­dled and then splashed with white rum and soda wa­ter. You can’t es­cape mojitos in Ha­vana, and you shouldn’t; they cost any­where from $2.50 to $6.

The drink’s al­leged birth­place and one of Ernest Hem­ing­way’s fa­mous haunts is La Bode­guita del Me­dio in old Ha­vana. Known for mu­sic and drinks but not al­ways qual­ity food, the tra­di­tional Cuban fare served here has im­proved over the years; be sure to write your name on the wall be­fore you leave.

Sim­i­lar places within walk­ing dis­tance in­clude Sloppy Joe's (not at all like the gritty bar in Key West) and the iconic El Floridita—two ex­am­ples of his­toric places for a cock­tail and photo op, not din­ing.

A pop­u­lar start to meals is frit­uras de malanga, a type of taro root that is shred­ded and made into balls, fried un­til crisp and served with honey and other sauces. You can’t have just one, and they are a must at El del Frente.

Owned by the same pro­pri­etors of the well-known O’Reilly 304, Frente oc­cu­pies a space across the street that is barely big enough to turn around in but one of the most sought-af­ter places to dine in Ha­vana. Frente has a cock­tail list that could ri­val many bars in South­west Florida.

The food is stun­ning and, with­out ex­cep­tion, cooked to per­fec­tion. The juicy steak chur­rasco is served on a gi­ant plate with black beans, guiso de maiz and pico de gallo. The em­panadas are meaty, crisp and make the best of friends when dipped into the tomato pre­serves they are served with.

So­phis­ti­cated and in­ven­tive, El Cocinero is a chic spot in an old peanut oil fac­tory, next to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, one of the most pop­u­lar con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries in Ha­vana. If you don’t dine here, at least have a cock­tail in the tower bar. The stairs are a bit treach­er­ous, but the view is worth it.

Piles of yerba buena, or mint (be­low left), are found at al­most every bar in Ha­vana and used for the sig­na­ture mo­jito. Some of the best tuna sashimi (inset) you'll ever have is served at Santy. Flan with rice pud­ding (be­low right) is a clas­sic dessert...

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