To know Havana is to love her – those rutted, ruined streets of colonial beauty, those enchanting squares fringed with arches and bathed in bougainvillea. Sweet rum, tropical breezes, myriad rumbling American jalopies and a warm, charming people are the elements that combine to win hearts.
This is the most culturally rich country in the Caribbean, possibly in Latin America. And after getting on for six decades of socialism, it is clear that artistic virtuosity is flourishing, whether in dance, song or on canvas. Cuba’s exotic food heritage, on the other hand, a fusion of Spanish, African, Amerindian and Chinese elements, is only just being rediscovered. Over the past six decades, it has been trampled on by the strictures of the US embargo and a domestic economic crisis – a paucity of ingredients devastating a once-rich cuisine.
When private restaurants (paladares) were introduced from the 1990s onwards, a clutch of competent cooks began to flourish – notably at La Guarida, the beautiful film set for Cuban cult film Fresa y Chocolate, and La Esperanza, decked out like a colonially beautiful stage and ever popular despite the famously bitchy service. They flourished, though, because there was nowhere else to go. For the most part, prohibitive taxes and regulations, ignorance about entrepreneurialism and a dearth of produce meant the majority of restaurants remained uninspired front-room affairs, rotating a distinctly uncreative set of Cuban staples serving stodgy comida criolla: roast chicken, pork or fish served with rice, beans, and salad. Street food was pizza with the consistency of cardboard, the famous Cuban sandwich descended to reconstituted ham and cheese with the texture and taste of foot mould, and chicken fried in cheap oil reused for the hundredth time.
But the winds of change have been blowing, and what started as a gentle gust a few years ago is picking up speed. The state has sanctioned the establishment of small private firms and is even offering loans. Businesses have mushroomed across Cuba, from mobile-parts shops to nail bars. On the restaurant scene, the result has been an explosion of paladares. Chefs are returning from overseas with capital to fund homegrown projects, and there is increasing competition at multiple levels for clients, staff and produce.
The results have been impressive, transforming the dining experience in Havana from one of minimizing the pain and playing it safe into a gourmet’s delight where you can eat well at somewhere different for lunch and dinner (breakfast is still something of a struggle) daily for a fortnight and still not have time to take in some of the best dining experiences.
Where to eat
Lunch: San Cristóbal
San Cristóbal occupies one of the few grand residential homes in central Havana. Its high-ceilinged side terrace, with foliage and resident parrot in a cage, is a delight with quality objects d’art scattered about. San Cristobal was originally the casa of owner Carlos Cristobal Marquez’s grandmother. The personable Marquez converted the family home into this appealing paladar and his world travels might explain the eclectic menus, from chicken Agrigento to gazpacho and Cuban-style mezze plates with octopus and fried sweet potato.
In Jaimanitas, a down-at-heel fishing village within Havana’s westerly city limits, we go in search of a sushi joint far from the sanitised sections of Old Havana. Our taxista gets lost in the poorly lit streets. Finally we find it: a (renovated) fisherman’s shack on the water’s edge where ramshackle boats collect. At this spit-andsawdust joint they turn the catch of the day into sashimi, nigiri and California rolls. Octopus and fresh fish are on the menu, which isn’t written down. It’s zingy, delectable and fresh.
Dinner: El Tablao de Pancho
Tuesday night we go in search of a little entertainment with our dinner. Lets see what the fuss is all about in Old Havana at the incredibly popular El Tablao de Pancho.
La Casa is more than just a restaurant; it is the crucible of the Robaina family from the 91- year-old great grandmother to the latest great grandson and everything in between. Located on the ground floor of a 1950s modernist house with a well-ventilated outdoor terrace and enclosed air-conditioned room. The menu is dedicated to international fusion, look for spinach crepe stuffed with chicken jardinière, Galician style octopus and Marinated clams. Thursday night is sushi night for which they have a wonderful Japanese chef presiding over.
Atelier is the baby of Nuris Higuera. Her interiors are even prettier than the roof terrace: each table topped with colored glass pieces, vintage colonial crockery and crocheted tablecloths (a knowing dash of delicate Cubanía). Contemporary Cuban art is rotated regularly, creating a constantly changing art gallery. The service is attentive but not overbearing. It’s like being at a pleasingly secret bolt-hole in the bohemian villages of northern Ibiza.
Dinner: Casa Miglis
Michel Miglis’ Casa Miglis is the first restaurant to open serving Scandinavian cuisine (yes, really) since the revolution. The menu features such rare ingredients as “lingon berries from deep in the Swedish forests”. The light and airy interiors are designed by Swede Andreas Hegert. Staples such as Skagen toast and meatballs join spicy couscous. Aside from the corny 1980s ballads, I could be in Madrid or Lisbon. Anywhere in Europe, Miglis’ restaurant would be par for the course. In the decrepit streets of Central Havana, it feels like a little miracle.
Lunch: La Fontana
When in doubt go to La Fontana so goes the refrain of long term Havana residents. There is a reason for this – reliably good, with no fuss or pretension and great food. This is the place where you give up going back to the office after lunch and while away the afternoon on the large outdoor terrace amid attractive fountains and irregular ponds stocked with fish. It is time for a peppered Chateaubriand steak. Washed down with a beer or three where else would you want to be?
Dinner: El Cocinero
Entering through the imposing brick chimney of the same name we climb three flights of circular stairs to reach an alfresco rooftop, which is as industrial and chic as any urban bar in London’s Shoreditch or on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The service matches this dynamic, no languid movement here; it is all fast, purposeful under the watchful eye of the dynamic Rafael. This is clearly the place to be for a mixed crowd of affluent young Cubans, expatriates and travelers in the know. The food does not disappoint, the cocktails superb.
Lunch: Ivan Chef Justo
Located opposite the Museum of the Revolution there is a comfortable and airy feel to this place. It seems to resonate with a Mediterranean breeze. This is Ivan’s place and as we come up the stairs he is locked in intense concentration in the small kitchen getting out dishes. With a light bottle of white wine we settle in for an indulgent lunch of baby lamb ribs, shiitake mushroom and freshly grilled fish. Creative, incredibly rich in flavour and perfectly prepared we are going nowhere in a hurry after here.
Dinner: La Guarida
The film set for Fresa y Chocolate, La Guarida’s ambiance is set by the incredible approach up a sweeping staircase. It’s the Cuban version of The Ivy, so Hollywood actors dine here when they’re in town – as do rafts of Cuban musicians. Booking are essential – we are greeted warmly at our table by Enrique Nuñez who despite being Cuba’s most famous restaurateur still hustles to make sure that everything is just right. We try the eggplant caviar, gazpacho, caimanero (fresh grouper) and watermelon with grilled shrimps – superb.
Lunch: Il Divino
Sunday finds us tagging along with friends with kids. My secret desire for each to be allocated their own iPad is negated when we arrive deep into Havana’s sprawling suburbs, at Il Divino. Negated because they are gone within 5 minutes exploring the spacious ground, We settle into a lazy bottle of red (from Havana’s best wine cellar) in the beautiful terrace to this large Mediterranean style villa with greenhouses, organic farm, geese and chickens to amuse the little monsters. It’s a day for roasted chicken and lamb shoulder – delightful.
Dinner: Le Chansonnier
Héctor Higuera, the owner of Le Chansonnier, gutted a classic colonial home to create an industrial-chic bar and a restaurant with a reclaimed-metal feature wall. We tuck into babaganoush, curried shrimp and pan-fried cheese with onion confit. Afterwards alone on Hector’s elegant terrace, I savour that earthy full stop at the end of the meal, the cafecito. Fierce and smoky, softened by a honeyed aroma, it packs a punch and is just like Cuba itself: a bit in your face, a bit much, dark, intense – and sweet as hell.
How do they do it?
What most drop-in tourists may not be aware of, however, is just how much it takes to create this kind of offering in contemporary Cuba. To produce a decent menu here, you have to overcome massive problems of supply. It’s no coincidence that many paladares adopt a ‘fusion’ menu that uses a strictly local and organic stream of produce. Each paladar relies on a full-time comprador (buyer) who visits markets and main suppliers on a daily basis. Chefs then have to be creative with what their compradors come back with.
Tanja Buwalda, a warm Irish Cubaphile and self-confessed food nerd who works with Esencia Experiences offering tailor-made travel at Cuba’s top end offers us a crash course in Havana’s complicated food story. Buwalda, who ran her own Asian fusion restaurant in Cork, says she has learnt a lot about cooking in a Cuban way – slowly. “I have learnt to use a pressure cooker, to soak beans a day before, then, the day after, to use those same beans to make a soup or a casserole. I have learnt to sit my meat in marinade for a long time, and to wait patiently for my fruit to ripen. I never throw anything out. I go to the market daily and buy for that day, or recycle leftovers. Cooking here is a metaphor for life. My life, like my cooking, has slowed right down.”
The experiences Buwalda offers are not-in-the-guidebook stuff: a day trip into the countryside on a Harley to a small farm, including lunch with the farmer, and an exploration of Havana through its street food. (From the barrio to the embassy district, she knows the best churros – deep-fried doughnuts; the best Cuban biscuits; and the best pan con lechon – slow-cooked shredded pork in aromatic vinaigrette on a soft white bun.) She can introduce you to the nascent world of vegetarian Cuba, taking you on an early-morning talk and tour around the Nunez-Jimenez Foundation museum, founder of permaculture in Cuba or, on a home-cooking day, a tour of the markets then back to the home of a Cuban to prepare and share a meal.
We visit two organoponicos – Havana’s urban vegetable gardens. After the fall of the USSR in 1990, vacant state land turned into ‘people’s plots’: necessity being the mother of invention. These days, permaculture devotees travel from all over the world to check out these high-yield projects, part of Cuba’s urban wallpaper.
Tanja also takes me to a range of mercados. “We’ll get there before 11am, otherwise it’s too hot and everything good has gone,” she says. Our first stop is the state Tulipan market, where there is plenty of produce: basketball-size papayas, vast yucca, oranges, tomatoes, green peppers, every kind of dried bean, garlic, green beans, lettuces and horseradish.
“No fruit or vegetables are imported here,” Buwalda tells me, “so when you take a tomato home and bite into it, you are tasting Cuba – heat; red, rich copper soil; hand-grown food with little machinery – all of that is captured. I’ve tasted eight types of mango here.”
We set off to the private 19 y B market, which they call “El Mercado de los Millonarios” – it’s pricey and frequented by expats and owners of bed and breakfasts and paladares. “Doctors and teachers don’t shop here,” Buwalda says. Here you can find exotic fare for Cuba: green chillies, ginger, ready-made salads, quail eggs, cauliflower and broccoli (little encountered, unbelievably), beetroot and fresh herbs. We even fund olive-infused goat’s cheese. There is however no guarantee the same products will be available tomorrow and seasonality rules.
Arroz con leche: A sweet, creamy rice pudding infused with cinnamon.
Batido: Milkshake made with ice cream or, more commonly, milk and crushed ice, and tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, papaya or guava.
Cafecito: Cuban espresso: punchy, strong and served in a tiny cup.
Chicharrones: Fried pork skins, often sold in a twist of old Granma newspaper sheets.
Comida Criolla: Cuisine created in Caribbean/Latin countries during the Spanish colonial period – a fusion of Amerindian, Spanish and African.
Croquetas: Ground ham, pork, chicken or even tuna fried in a light batter.
Cuba libre: A highball cocktail of cola, lime juice and white rum.
Daiquiri Rum: lime juice and sugar.
Flan: A rich custard pudding poured into a pan and topped with caramelised sugar then baked.
Frijoles negros: Black beans cooked into thick gravy with garlic and spices and served over rice.
Frituras de malanga: Grated malanga (a root vegetable) rolled with egg, garlic and lime and then fried.
Mariquitas: Plantains sliced extremely thin, then deep fried like potato crisps.
Mojito: A highball cocktail of white rum, sugar (or sugar cane juice), sparkling water and yerba buena (Cuban mint).
Mojo Criollo: A commonly used marinade of sour orange (naranja agria), garlic, onions and spice (oregano, cumin, bay leaf).
Moros y Cristianos: (also known as congri). Black bean and white rice cooked together with a sofrito (see below).
Palomilla: A thinly sliced or pounded steak cooked in lime juice, garlic and onions.
Ropa vieja: Literally ‘old clothes’. The dish consists of beef shredded and stewed with tomatoes, onions, garlic, green pepper and spices.
Sofrito: Sauce of onions, garlic, green peppers, cumin, bay leaf and oregano, sometimes with pork belly.
Tamales: Banana leaves stuffed with cornmeal dough mixed with spiced pork.
Tostones: Thick slices of green plantain, fried, flattened, refried, and served hot and salted.
Yucca: A Cuban root vegetable usually boiled and served as a side dish in a lemon and garlic marinade.