It was one of those chance finds: a restaurant with personality, and off the radar. Leaving the main road of Centro Habana clouded with exhaust from rattling Oldsmobiles, Chevies, Buicks et al, I had dodged a group of kids whacking baseballs to head down a side street. The smart frontage looked promising in contrast to its surroundings. Then a heavy-looking bouncer swung open the ironwork gate and, this being Cuba, flashed a big smile.
Thus I entered San Cristobal, a spanking new paladar (private restaurant) that is a sign of Raul Castro’s slow relaxing of entrepreneurial constrictions. Havana’s top places have always been located way out in the smart residential areas of Miramar and Vedado. Habana Vieja, the tourists’ theatre-set, has a handful, but here in Centro Habana, the peeling, commercial in-between, there was nothing. Or virtually, because in fact a few blocks north was the most iconic paladar of them all, La Guarida, still living on its fame as the location for Cuba’s big 1994 hit film, “Fresa y Chocolate.” But time moves on, and although my lunch there was excellent, I wanted somewhere new.
Seated on an art deco sofa in a pistachio-green anteroom, I was invited to read the menu. The waiter, in immaculate white shirt and bow-tie, apologised that for the moment the menu is only in Spanish as the restaurant was only two months old. Although it made a bizarre decorative contrast, I had the choice between a sunny, leafy patio and a shady inner world of art nouveau nostalgia in the three salons. A zebra-skin, piles of leather-bound books, chandeliers, lace table-covers, antique furniture and framed vintage photos all led me back in time to a pre-revolutionary era of bourgeois comforts. Foodwise, it was another story, as the charming chef-owner, Carlos Cristóbal Márquez, has travelled all over, from Mexico City and Brazil to Madrid and Milan. This was apparent in the balanced gazpacho, velvety tortilla, tender lobster and delicate crème caramel that I consumed—altogether totalling about 40 CUC. I’ll go again, that’s for sure.
Calle San Rafael #469 entre Lealtad y Campanario, Centro Habana
Tel (+ 53) 7-860-1705
© Fiona Dunlop
Fiona Dunlop is a travel writer and writes the excellent blog Slow Track through civilization. www.fionadunlop.com
First published in The Reconnoisseur on www.howtospendit.com