Nazdarovie: Soviet style, Cuban finesse

I never really knew the Cuba of those days very well. My first memories of the island belong to a time that is very close to the Great Change, when we were already starting to see that what had at one point been rock-solid was about to fall apart. Nevertheless, my memories do include a lovely apartment in Santa Clara, the home of a couple who had gone to school in the USSR, and which I used to visit frequently at the end of the 1980s. Today, as I walk into the Nazdarovie Restaurant, I feel that I am again being enveloped in a welcoming and sweetly exotic embrace.

 At the door on the ground floor, a young man wearing a Soviet Navy cap talks to me in Russian and Spanish. I climb the stairs and no sooner have I crossed the threshold, I see a poster over the bar of a Soviet worker who holds out his hand in welcome and the lettering (in Russian of course, but someone kindly translates it for me) says greetings of friendship and peace. On carefully decorated shelves, various Vodka bottles display a variety of brand names and qualities, lovely matrioshkas (those charming little painted dolls that are nestled one inside another, getting smaller and smaller) and a bust of Lenin. At one side of the bar, there are several issues of Sputnik, the Soviet magazine that used to successfully circulate Cuba, a samovar and a bear is pursuing naughty Mashenka from the television. To the right of the bar, the Soviet Room has one entire wall decorated with posters showing Soviet life and events. Lots of arts and crafts objects, black tables, glass and way over there the terrace dominates the Malecón in the late evening. Once night has arrived, I enjoy the gorgeous view of the line of lights that define the end of the city and the start of the dark sea, interrupted here and there by the lights of some small boat.

In the Room of the Czars, one single table for six diners has been set up for an elegant dinner. I chat with Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian of Ukrainian background who has been living for 23 years in Cuba and says he is the intellectual author of Nazdarovie. With three Cuban partners, his wife Danelys Coz and two old friends, Rolando Almirante and Yociel Marrero, this restaurant was opened just two months ago. The group is brimming with passion and ideas. They would like their business to be a genuine cultural experience, not just a money-making proposition.

Their staff has been chosen from the huge Slavic community in Havana, people who had arrived during the years when Cuba-Soviet relations flourished and who had established their homes and had their children here. Some of the waitresses I talked with remembered New Year’s Eve dinners in their childhood, with huge tables loaded with cakes baked by the hands of their Soviet mothers who had fallen in love with Cubans and followed them back to Cuba. One of the cooks was born in Russia and came to live here when he was three. One of the barmen is from distant Siberia. All of this provides a typical and authentic setting for visitors. The mission of Nazdarovie and its staff is to make this a place to revive memories of the Soviet Union, for them and for Cubans who spent the best years of their youth in the USSR and who miss those smells and tastes that they never again could experience. Until now, that is.

In the kitchen I chat with Irina. She tells me about how she came to Cuba, her mother’s cooking and her dream of cooking the foods of her homeland, a dream which has at last come true. Everybody speaks Russian except one mulatto cook who has the look of someone born in Uzbekistan. “I can’t speak Russian,” he says, “but my cooking comes out in Russian.” Although when we say “Russian” we are selling it short: the idea here is to make Soviet food that is authentic and delicious and that brings a little from each of the 15 republics that made up the socialist conglomerate. More than its political beliefs and ideology, the USSR left a permanent cultural mark on this Caribbean island. To achieve this goal, the restaurant has a prestigious Cuban-Russian chef who studied at the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts of Miami, travelled around the world and today stands behind every dish served at Nazdarovie. The menu is dynamic, designed to delight those who are homesick ,and every week a Chef’s Special will be highlighted, to be announced on the restaurant’s website (www.nazdarovie-havana.com). And there will be a file containing all of the Chef’s Specials from past weeks so that diners can request a special meal with their reservation.

Nazdarovie also has an admirable ecological mission: in the works are plans to use solar heaters for the water in the kitchen and to process fats. At the present time, their organic waste is being used to feed animals and they use totally organic spices. They respect the ingredients in the original recipes so that Russian diners feel at home. This is the place where one middle-aged Cuban woman broke into tears over her soup because the first spoonful had transported her back to her days as a young student in the cold Soviet winters.

As of November, the restaurant is going to start showing the work of visual artists who use and pay tribute to Soviet iconography. By the last week of November, they will initiate a permanent cycle of three special days of discounts for Soviet women living in Cuba, for the Cuban-born sons and daughters of Soviets, and for Cubans who had studied or worked in the USSR (in each case, there will be a special menu at a specific time and the first 20 persons will be seated; more details on the website). And on Fridays and Saturdays, traditional Russian and Ukrainian music will be played by Soviet women who live on the island.

Nazdarovie is trying to be more than merely a restaurant. It is well on its way to doing just that. It pays homage to an era and to the people who lived through it. It is an ode to nostalgia and to the joy of acknowledgement and revisiting the past. I raise my glass to that! Better still: I raise my glass with all of you…Nazdarovie! To your health!

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