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Cuban food has always had a bad press but things are definitely looking up for footloose foodies. Fine dining is permeating the Soviet-style system, above all as the island’s financial doldrums are pushing the cause of entrepreneurs. Raul Castro is now bowing to the inevitable, slashing half a million public sector jobs and opening the doors to local dynamos – who include cooks. Private restaurants – aka paladares – are on the up after suffering years of on-off status.
This system which started 15 years or so ago is now blossoming, from Baracoa at the far eastern end of the island to Santiago, the music capital, and of course Havana. One of the most venerable and popular paladares is La Guarida, famed for being the location of the cult movie Fresa y Chocolate back in 1994. The picture above may remind you of it – and little has changed. As you climb the grand staircase of a crumbling baroque mansion to the third-floor restaurant, you pass a table of domino-players, then laundry drying in the breeze of a vast colonnaded area and finally upstairs spot the local barber snipping away on the roof between more flapping laundry. Here he is..but I’m going off-piste here. Back to the kitchen.
The point is that you can eat well at La Guarida, seen above (Concordia 418, Centro between Gervasio & Escobar tel 863 7351 – you need to book) in its wonderful arcane setting and now it is perfectly legal. Fresh seafood (red snapper with orange salsa slips down well), pork, chicken, vegetables with a deft touch, lightly fried yucca – there’s no shortage for those with CUCs, or convertible pesos. It’s at the top end of paladar prices, but still only about $30 for a spread. Another high-end paladar a few blocks away in the same no-frills Centro area is San Cristobal (San Rafael 469, between Lealtad and Campanario tel 860 1705), opened only a few months ago by its genial chef in his elegant, spacious home. The sunny patio is perfect for lunch while interior rooms done up in 1920s mode are better for candle-lit dinners. Here you can tuck into mixed grilled meats, lobster, seafood stew, wash it down with crisp Albariño wine from Galicia ($25) and finish with a lemon pie. Definitely worth the detour.
Over in Santiago de Cuba, the must-go place is Salon Tropical (c/ Fernando Markane, Reparto Santa Barbara tel: 22 641161) , a rooftop restaurant run virtually single-handedly by one man, impressively fast on his feet and good-humoured into the bargain. Again, no complaints about the quality nor the service nor the outdoor setting, but an overbearing number of grizzly old Italian men with sexy young Cuban companions rather effected our appetite. It is also far from the town centre.
Then comes Baracoa, my dream destination, sunk into a wonderful tropical lethargy that only wakes up after about 10 at night – when the three main bars tune up and the music kicks in. In this isolated little town, everybody heads for the chandelier-lit glory of El Colonial (just north of the main square) to devour divinely fresh lobster or tender sea-bass, perfectly grilled, with or without an exquisite coconut sauce (this by the way is the region of cacao, coconuts and coffee – also bananas, the “green gold’ that instigated Baracoa’s boom back in the 1930s. Things have been on the slide ever since).
Then we discovered La Terraza (Flor Crombet 143 tel 21 643123), perhaps one of the oddest paladares in existence. A steep, unbelievably narrow staircase takes you straight up from the front room (where grand-dad sits watching telly) onto a roof – hard to call terrace – where five tables just about squeeze in between water-tanks, aerials and, yes, the washing line. Nilson (sic), the beaming owner, pants up and down bearing plates of gourmet Baracoan succulence, again usually pork or fabulously fresh seafood accompanied by rice and black beans – all for about $10. After a rum or two to digest, the tropical breeze picks up – and it’s time to hit the bars. August 2011