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Eating Well in Cuba

The few quality restaurants get better, but finding good food remains difficult

Securing a table in one of the few good restaurants in Cuba is difficult these days. If you don't reserve a table well in advance or you don't know someone who works at, or better, owns one of the best restaurants, you probably will be stuck eating dull, poorly prepared international-style food in one of the island's hotels or government-run restaurants.
"The food scene is more and more interesting in Cuba, particularly in Havana," says Enrique Nunez, owner of La Guarida, the city's best restaurant, "but it is still very, very limited." The top places to eat in Havana may represent only a couple of hundred seats. There are now fewer good restaurants in Havana than there were just two years ago when I wrote a similar story for this magazine (for reasons I'll explain later). However, the small number that remain are getting better and better. They offer the discerning visitor good and interesting food, attentive and friendly service, and intriguing, sometimes exceptional, ambiance. Plus, they usually cost only about $20 to $30 per person for a two-course meal with drinks included.
Take Nunez's tiny eatery as an example. It is located on the third floor of a dilapidated early-twentieth-century town house in the area of Havana Centro, which resembles a bomb site with buildings literally falling into the street. Yet Nunez attracts some of the best clientele on the island. Even the queen of Spain and actor Jack Nicholson have dined at La Guarida, which, incidentally, was a location for the award-winning film, Fresa y Chocolate. "It's a shame that there are not more restaurants for the sophisticated traveler to Cuba," Nunez says. "It's just like trying to find places to hear good music or have a quiet drink with a friend. The number of places is very limited."
Most of these exceptional restaurants are tiny, family-run establishments called paladars. They are completely different from the large restaurants designed for tourists that are run by the government or hotels, which are usually overpriced and offer dull food. A good paladar can be anything from a handful of tables in the dining room patio of a family's 1950s-era Miami Deco house in the quiet neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, to a cluster of round wrought-iron tables in the garden of a manor house in the posh area of Miramar. These places are fun, welcoming and satisfying. They not only please your taste buds but also satisfy your general well-being with their distinctly Cuban atmosphere. They are also popular with the growing middle class on the island, since most restaurants, especially tourist places, are far too expensive for locals.
Paladars by law can seat only 12 people, because the government does not want competition with its tourist restaurants. These small restaurants sprouted up like weeds in the mid-1990s when the Cuban economy was struggling and the owners hoped to make a few dollars to supplement their tiny incomes. At one point, Havana alone had close to 1,000 paladars. Today, the number has shrunk to approximately 120. Most of the would-be restaurateurs found the work too difficult and the government regulation and taxes too stifling. Moreover, many of them deserved to be out of business, because they offered poor and sometimes unhygienic food. Stories of tourists whose holidays were ruined by stomach maladies are well known among those who frequent paladars. Also, taxi drivers often dictate which paladars are popular since they receive a kickback from the owner. These paladars nearly always disappoint, so don't take dining advice from taxi drivers.
However, really bad food now appears to be the exception with paladars. Menus are much more interesting than full-fledged tourist restaurants, even though paladars are restricted from using such ingredients as steak and lobster, which are the specialties of government-run restaurants. Fresh fish, poultry, pork and vegetables are the typical fare, since paladar owners can obtain ingredients from local farmers and not only from government suppliers. Food is usually prepared in home kitchens by family members or friends.
Paladar service is equally familiar. A number of establishments have tried to be more professional, such as La Guarida, which has a chef and a well-equipped, yet tiny, restaurant-quality kitchen, but the normal experience feels like being invited for dinner at someone's house.
"We have traveled to Europe and we have many friends from around the world who have restaurants and who are chefs," says Nunez, who with his wife, Odeysis, takes care of the front of the house at La Guarida seven days a week. The menu regularly changes and can offer diners anything from simple hearty gazpacho soup to fresh sautéed snapper filets served in a tangy orange sauce. La Guarida is the hardest table to reserve on the island, so, says Nunez, "We have lots of inspiration to do better."
Inspiration is not a word used by many who have eaten in the majority of official tourist restaurants on the island. I recently ate at one steak house in Havana, which served a starter of deep-fried plantains filled with small boiled shrimp in Thousand Island dressing. The plate was "decorated" with ketchup and mustard. The steak that followed tasted as if it had been frozen for months and was as tough as shoe leather. Adding to the meal's injury was the bill; it came to more than $100 for two with a mediocre bottle of Spanish wine.
A European friend who worked as a chef for a few months in a number of well-known Havana restaurants says that those were some of the most frustrating days of his life. "We just couldn't get fresh ingredients," he says. "We had to buy from the government suppliers, and everything was frozen. All the vegetables were canned. Even if I wanted to buy from local farmers or fishermen, I was not allowed to. I often paid for meat or fish on the black market with my own money or brought ingredients with me from Europe, because I couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to make good food, but it was too difficult."
He says that most of the Cubans he worked with just didn't care, or simply couldn't understand, what good food was about, from the dishwashers to the head of the restaurant group. "I once asked my second what his favorite dish was and he said, 'Scrambled eggs with avocado and ketchup,'" he says with a laugh. "I knew that someone like that would have problems appreciating the subtleties of cooking for educated people from around the world."
Some Cuban chefs just don't want to admit their pitfalls. "There is no one in Miami or the United States that can make authentic Cuban food like I can," says one well-known "culinary star" on the island. "Why would I want to know what restaurants are doing anywhere else but here?" His restaurant serves starters of processed Canadian fish balls and crab claws from out of the freezer as well as tough, second-rate beef from the same source. There is absolutely nothing Cuban on his menu except for the black beans and rice that accompany each dish.
However, it would be unfair to roast all of the big-name restaurants on the island. One of the most successful places in Havana is the large outdoor restaurant called El Aljibe. Each day, it serves hundreds of pounds of perfectly roasted chicken, savory boiled rice and spicy cooked black beans, and the service is as fast and professional as a Parisian brassiere or New York grill. It's one of the most popular restaurants in Cuba, not only for tourists but also diplomats, foreign businessmen and the small number of local elite. El Aljibe is the best spot on the island for Criollo food, what Cubans call the cuisine of their country.
"The number one reason why we do well is that we have respect for our client," says Sergio Garcia Marcias, who started El Aljibe in 1993 after running a smaller, similarly styled restaurant near the airport. He has also recently taken over the management of La Cecilia restaurant, which, before turning into a tourist trap about five years ago, served very good Cuban food. He plans to turn it around with his winning formula: "We serve good Cuban food and nothing else. The food is always good and the service is always quick and friendly."
Garcia makes it sound easy, but in Cuban restaurants, quality food, good service and pleasing ambience is still the exception instead of the norm. But there is hope for a better future. Below are the restaurants I frequent when I am on the island. They are listed in my order of preference and placed in categories of expensive (more than $40 per person without wine), moderate ($25 to $35 per person), and inexpensive (less than $20). Most places are cash-only. No U.S.-issued credit cards or traveler's checks are accepted anywhere on the island. Remember to add 10 to 15 percent to the bill for service.
La Guarida
Calle Concordia, No. 418 e/Gervasio y Escobar
Centro Habana
Tel.: 62 49 40
Monday to Sunday, dinner only
This remains the hippest, best restaurant in Havana. Its third-floor venue, in one of the dozens of apartments in a huge, rundown town house, makes you feel as if you are in a speakeasy in 1920s Chicago. You have to walk up a dark staircase and then bang on an imposing wooden door with a peephole that someone slides open to see who is there. The three dining rooms are decorated with wood paneling, posters, photographs and candles. It's warm, romantic and elegant and the food is always good. Try a starter of fresh and zesty aubergine caviar followed by a main course of tasty roasted snapper with perfectly cooked local vegetables. Granted, the food is not the best of New York, but they are trying.
La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48, No. 1311 e/13 y 15
Tel.: 29 65 14
Sunday to Friday, lunch and dinner
This is a great place to eat lunch or dinner. Part of a large Spanish colonial style house built in 1937, its green, lush garden, full of ferns and small palms, is bliss in the warm, humid Cuban weather. The food is hearty and flavorful, including such starters as roasted chickpeas mixed with pieces of ham, sausage and tomatoes, and a simple bruschetta topped with tuna. The pork loin rolled and stuffed with dates, peanuts, ham and sausage was delicious although extremely filling. Lilliam even offers a nice selection of wine from Spain's reliable producer Torres.
El Aljibe
Ave. 7ma e/24 y 26
Tel.: 24 15 84, 24 15 83
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