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Dining a la Cuba

Dining a la Cuba When in Havana, Eat What the Cubans Eat—But Keep it Simple. Here are Some of the City's Best Eateries
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

(continued from page 1)

Perhaps the greatest improvement in dining in Cuba has been the wine selection. Few major cities throughout the Caribbean or Latin America have as many good wines available to diners as in Havana. There's even a club of knowledgeable wine waiters. "I must have been crazy," admitted Enrico Garzaroli, an Italian who owns and runs the major wine-importing company on the island, Wines and Spirits Distributors of Havana. "But I love wine and you have to have something good to drink when you are in Cuba." He sells close to 50,000 cases a year in Cuba now, mostly in Havana restaurants and hotels.

Most restaurants, not including paladares, have good wine lists, usually with at least 50 to 60 different selections. It's best to keep to Chilean or Spanish wines since the turnover is better, which means you have less chance of ordering a poorly stored bottle. Cuba's hot, humid weather is hell on fresh wines. Look for such names as Torres, Marques de Riscal, Marques de Caceres and Concha y Toro. You may also find good wines from France, including those from Louis Latour, Ladoucette and Hugel. There are even California wines from Wente.

Surprisingly, the availability of good Cuban cigars is usually a problem in local restaurants. Most do not have large cigar selections, and numerous sell counterfeit smokes. A few have a roller in their dining rooms who makes cigars on the spot, but the cigars are often rough or poor tasting. It's best to bring your own unless you are going somewhere such as La Floridita, which has a great selection.

Below are restaurants I have visited in the past year. Keep in mind that paladares, being home-grown operations, can close without notice. It's best to ask around. Expensive restaurants are those that cost $40 or more per person without wine; moderate, $25 to $35, and inexpensive, less than $20. Cuban waiters expect to be tipped after a meal; 10 percent of the bill is more than appreciated, although they often don't deserve it.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

El Aljibe
Ave. 7ma entre 24 y 26
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 241584, 241583
Moderate
This is the liveliest, most popular restaurant in Havana for people in the know, and for good reason: El Aljibe serves the best Cuban food in town. It's Havana's outdoor answer to a bustling Parisian brasserie or a jumping New York bar and grill. Order the house specialty, which is a platter full of juicy roasted chicken served in a flavorful meat sauce. Neither the waiters nor the chef will divulge the recipe for this wonderful sauce, but sources say it's made from fermented orange juice and drippings from the roasted chicken. The roasted pork or grilled steaks are equally good. Regardless of your choice, everything is accompanied with crisp French fries, beans and rice as well as local produce such as plantains. Plenty of good wines are available, especially those from Chile and Spain, and they are well kept in a temperature-controlled storage room. After your meal, try a seven-year-old Havana club rum or the rarer Matusalem Anejo Superior in a snifter, along with a cigar. The restaurant's humidor is usually well stocked.

La Guardia
Calle Concordia No. 418
e/Gervasio y Escobar
Centro Habana
Phone: 624940
Inexpensive
The coolest place to eat in Havana is this small paladar. Located on the third floor of an eighteenth-century townhouse in central Havana, the three-room restaurant is in a converted apartment that features a balcony and beautifully carved cornices with wooden shutters. It's like a small, funky yet hip restaurant in New York's Soho or the Latin Quarter in Paris. Don't worry about the dilapidated entrance and stairway that lead to the restaurant; it's just part of the experience. (The 1995 Oscar-nominated Cuban film, Fresa y Chocolate, was filmed there.) The food is thoughtfully prepared with a delicate touch. On a given night you might encounter a tangy and savory gaspacho soup or succulent fillets of snapper and grouper served with a buerre blanc sauce that shows just the right amount of lively acidity. Owner Enrique Nunez keeps a small but interesting selection of wines, mostly Spanish. A keen cigar smoker, he was one of the creators of Cuaba. Carlos Rodriq[g?]uez rolls cigars for the restaurant. The two are worth the trip alone.

Don Congrejo
Calle 1ra entre 16 y 18
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 24-41-69
Moderate
This is Havana's take on Joe's Stone Crab in Miami, but it comes across more like a cheap oceanside fish house outside of Barcelona, despite being in the upscale district of Miramar. Nonetheless, Don Congrejo's fish is second to none for quality, which is not surprising since the Ministry of Fisheries oversees the restaurant. Come for lunch; the view of the sea is refreshingly calming after spending some time in the hustle of the city. You can eat outdoors if weather permits. Crab, lobster and shrimp are prepared in just about every way imaginable. Fresh fish is always available; try the grouper or snapper. Plenty of good wines are available, with a list featuring more than 150 selections from France, Spain, Italy and even California. Ask Rene Garcia, an English-speaking and highly professional wine waiter, for his recommendations. Bring your own cigars.

Ranchon (Casa de 5ta y 16)
5ta Ave esquina 16
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 241185
Moderate
This is one of the most pleasant places for a cigar lover to spend a quiet al fresco lunch in Havana. Located in the fashionable Miramar district, the small restaurant is adjacent to one of the best cigar shops in the city. Order a frosty mug of Cuban beer, preferably Crystal, and enjoy the simple but well-prepared food. The standard grilled lobster or roasted pork and chicken are always reliable; however, chef Juan Luis Rosalas usually has a special of the day, which can include anything from grilled lamb cutlets to roast beef. Try his delicious stuffed red peppers with tuna for a starter. Service is quick and friendly. And don't forget to order a good cigar after your meal. Or walk into the shop a few feet away and buy a box.

La Floridita
Obispo No. 557
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 631060, 631061, 631111
Expensive
This is an institution in Havana, and a must visit for everyone. It is what a restaurant such as Tour d'Argent is to Paris and Four Seasons is to New York. Stop in for a cocktail at the best bar in town. Order a daiquiri nature, which is a shaken drink instead of the nose-tingling frozen version; it's the connoisseur's daiquiri. A fresh bowl of deep-fried plantain chips are always nearby to go with your drinks.


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