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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 2)

Sadly, the dining room is not up to par with the bar, although it's not bad. The modern neoclassical decoration of the room is elegant and inviting. It's classy and formal, yet doesn't necessitate wearing a suit--after all, this is Havana. Service is incredibly professional and attentive. The big problem is the kitchen. The menu is too ambitious, with lots of complex international-style dishes with rich sauces that could never be prepared properly in Havana. Stick to simple dishes instead. For instance, one of the best courses is prawns flambéed in rum by your waiter at the table. It is fresh and flavorful. The wine list is one of the best in the city, with excellent choices from France and Chile. Look for excellent French whites such as Baron de L Pouilly Fume or the Corton Charlemagne of Louis Latour. To finish off your meal, the restaurant has the best selection of cigars in the city, not to mention a large assortment of rums.

La Torre
Edificio Focsa
Calle 17 e/M y N
Vedado
Phone: 55-3088
Expensive
If you want a fine dining experience in Havana, this is the only place to go, and it's all thanks to a crazy young French chef called Frank Pecol. He came to Havana a few years ago as a tourist and fell in love with the place. Despite all the obstacles in obtaining good ingredients, he still manages to turn out well-prepared, interesting food, from grilled prawns with a sweet and refreshing soya [soy?--tf] sauce to a juicy, perfectly cooked steak with a red wine reduction served with fresh vegetables and potato gratin. It's like top hotel food in Europe or the United States, but in Havana it's three-star Michelin quality. In addition, the view of Havana from the dining room is fantastic at night since the restaurant's on the twentieth floor.[of what?--tf] The wine list is very good, with all the usual quality selections in town, from Torres Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon to a Concha y Toro Amelia Chardonnay. Service is helpful but slightly disorganized. Just don't look closely at the dining room's decor; it's reminiscent of an insurance company office circa 1960.

Le Chansonnier
No. 306
Calle 15 entre H e I
Vedado
Phone: 32-37-88
Inexpensive
One of the more popular paladares in the city, Le Chansonnier aspires to be like a small family restaurant in France, and it does a pretty good job of it. The private restaurant was originally created with the help of a waiter from the Le Chansonnier bistro in Paris. The place is small and cozy, with a few tables located in the front garden terrace as well as inside the house. Food is simple and well prepared. Try the grilled lamb chops or roasted rabbit in mustard sauce. They usually are served with the best French fries in town. The wine list is very limited, and you must bring your own cigars.

La Casa
Calle 30 no.865 entre 26 y 41
Nuevo Vedado, Plaza
Phone: 817000
Inexpensive
This is an extremely good, small family-run restaurant in the quiet neighborhood of Nueva Vedado. You can eat either in the dining room or out in the garden. Located in a 1950s-style house with a modish decor, La Casa serves such delicious dishes as fresh prawns sautéed in butter with garlic, and juicy roasted pork with beans and rice. The proprietor recommends his deep-fried chicken stuffed with cheese--something he calls "Chicken Gordon Blue." Regardless, it's tasty and rich. I once ran into Spain's Michelin three-star chef, Juan Mari Arzak, at La Casa, and he says he always eats there when he is in Havana--not a bad recommendation. There are usually a few good bottles of wine available as well as a good selection of rum. Bring your own smokes.

La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48 No. 1311 entre 13 y 15,
Miramar, Playa
Inexpensive
This is a relaxing little restaurant, with a wonderful plant-filled garden to soak up the atmosphere of a sultry Cuban evening. There's also a private room with air conditioning if you want more creature comforts. The food is solid home cooking, from oven-cooked meats to sautéed fish. A starter of warm chick peas mixed with sautéed onions and three different types of ham is mouthwateringly satisfying, while a tuna-and-onion tartlet is reminiscent of my grandmother's simple but tasty cooking. Lilliam [last name?], who does the cooking, is a master with fresh fish. Try the snapper or grouper, which is oven-roasted. Service is attentive and very friendly. Not much to drink in the way of wine, and bring your cigars.

RECOMMENDED

El Bodeguita del Media
Empedrado No. 207
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 624498, 618442
Moderate
Sure it's a tourist trap, but that's no reason not to enjoy yourself at this funky and famous bar/restaurant. The atmosphere is great. Get there early for either lunch or dinner, since it's packed with busloads of tourists at meal time. Many don't even bother buying a drink or meal and simply overcrowd the place to have their photographs taken inside. The food is criollo, with plenty of roasted pork and chicken dishes as well as black beans, rice and root vegetables. It's simple, rustic and satisfying. Service can be jaded and surly. They obviously don't need most people's business. El Bodeguita was supposedly one of the favorite drinking holes of Ernest Hemingway, and he reportedly always drank mojito cocktails at the bar. He would be appalled at the quality of the mojitos today. They have resorted to using unaged cane alcohol for the drinks, making them taste like sweetened firewater. Order a mojito with three-year-old rum instead. Bring your own cigars.

La Ferminia
No. 18107
5ta Ave. entre 182 y 184
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 336786, 336555
Moderate

Plenty of restaurants offer outside dining in Havana, but this is one of the better ones. A large converted private house in Miramar, La Ferminia is spacious, with tables in the covered patio as well as in the garden. Tables are also available in air-conditioned rooms. The food is standard issue but very good. Lots of grilled and baked fish, steaks, pork and chicken with black beans, rice and French fries. Main courses of grilled prawns and grouper fillets are particularly good. Service is attentive and quick by Havana standards. The wine list is adequate, with about 60 selections. Try the Miramar Torres Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California. [which Pinot Noir, or is this all one wine?--bg] The cigar selection can be rather limited, so bring your own.

Restaurante Terraza Florentina
Hotel Capri
Calle 21 esquina N
Vedado, Plaza
Phone: 33-37-47(48)
Inexpensive
The only good thing about the dilapidated Hotel Capri is the small Italian restaurant on its top floor. Looking out from 19 floors above central Havana and the sea, you can sometimes see Florida on a clear day. The views of the Malecon and Old Havana are some of the best in town. The food is cheap and cheerful, with plenty of pastas, risottos, and grilled fish and meats. Don't bother ordering starters here. A main course of spaghetti with shrimp in a white wine garlic sauce is always tangy and satisfying. The wine list boasts more than 100 selections and prices are reasonable. Check out the 1990 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, which sells for about half the price it does in U.S. wine shops. Service is friendly and quick. There's even a small cigar selection.


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