Let’s make one thing clear from the beginning—you shouldn’t go to Havana for the food. Decades of isolation and ongoing issues with agricultural production make it extremely difficult for restaurants to provide anything close to what we would call haute cuisine. At its worst, the culinary reality can result in really abysmal offerings. At their best, however, Havana’s restaurants can turn out simple, good-tasting fare, especially if it is seafood or poultry-based, and, every now and then, you end up with a dish in front of you that surprises, either because it is so innovative and creative, or just because you could find it in any restaurant in New York, or Miami. Wine lists are fairly limited, but a few places have been building their cellars to the point that you can easily find something good to drink, especially if you prefer Spanish or South American wines. And, for the most part, service is professional and friendly, even if you are a Red Sox fan like me; if you’re a Yankees fan, like Dave, you are treated like a king.
What has changed—again—in Havana is the advent of the paladars, the private restaurants created by the government years ago, then banned, then allowed to reopen again, and now finally being encouraged to stay in business. The paladar landscape is changing rapidly and new openings are occurring every month. Since the only real guide is the city’s word of mouth grapevine, don’t reject a recommendation if no one else has heard of it. You may just find a gem.
Be sure to get precise directions from a concierge, and verify that your taxi driver knows the place. There are no big signs for most of these restaurants, and you could easily drive past some of them situated in residential neighborhoods half a dozen times before finding them. And bring cash—for the most part, these are not establishments that take credit cards.
We ate at five different restaurants, going to El Aljibe, a fine roast chicken restaurant, twice because of its ease and relative low cost. El Aljibe is kind of like your favorite country diner; you know the food is not going to blow you away, but it is always well-prepared, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises and the welcome is always warm. Stick to the roast chicken. Order all the sides, including the chicken gravy for the rice. Get ready to be offered seconds and thirds, in other words, as much as you can eat. The restaurant also has what everyone calls the best wine cellar in Havana; it is big and temperature controlled, and it goes beyond the usual Spanish and South American fare, with a smattering of French labels; for instance, a 2006 Joseph Drouhin Gevrey Chambertin for $140 Cuban pesos. We went back twice because it is a quick, no-fuss meal, and at $12 Cuban pesos per person, before wine, the price can’t be beat. Both nights we selected Spanish albarinos, one my favorite white wines.
Fortune shined down on us too. La Guarida, which was always touted as the best paladar in the city, reopened in November after an 18-month hiatus during another of the Cuban government’s intermittent crackdowns on private businesses. The venue is simply stunning; you navigate three flights of decrepit marble stairs through a darkened foyer and stairwell to reach a series of rooms, like an old city mansion, including the quaint, low-ceilinged dining room by the bar with a French door opening out over the city’s rooftops. Enrique Núñez del Valle, the city’s best host, is here to stay, he says, and he is running 90 miles an hour to rebuild his franchise. The waiting room was packed with people waiting to eat so he’s already well on his way. The downside of his long closing was that his wine cellar still isn’t back up to its former standards; but that’s just a matter of time. We ate marvelously well, the papaya lasagna and the small gazpacho in a glass appetizers equal to anything you’d find in Miami. The grouper, in a parsley and garlic preparation was not quite outstanding, but still a tasty main course with plenty of flavor. We drank a Santa Digna Chardonnay, a delicious Chilean white, and ended the meal with a cigar—check out my blog about my stunning mystery cigar. This is where I smoked it. After dinner. Sitting at the table with my friends.
The next night Dave and I were on our own, and we headed to a new government-run restaurant in Habana Vieja, the Spanish colonial sector that is slowly being renovated—beautifully renovated, I might add. La Imprenta is housed in an old printing plant, and the soaring ceilings evoke the era when this was a semi-industrial site. The décor is pretty simple, and you might end up believing the primary distinction between a paladar and a government restaurant is lighting; it’s a little bright and harsh here and not much attention is paid to décor. But the food was pretty good. The seafood was expertly prepared; both Dave and I had a mixed seafood platter; the shrimp and lobster were perfect and the sautéed red snapper was the best piece of fish we ate all week. We drank a Marques de Caceres rose wine, which was delicious.
Afterwards, we strolled around on the cobblestoned streets in Habana Vieja. At each turn, you could hear the distant strains of what sounded like live music. Sure enough, it was live. At the Café Paris, we heard a band called Son de Cuba, playing soul-thumping, body-moving music that really is the national sound of Cuba. According to one band member, they play there a lot, and sometimes at the nearby Hotel Florida. A couple blocks away, we stepped into Bogedita del Medio and saw a small, four-piece acoustic ensemble with a singer playing soft Cuban classics. A small crowd gathered outside on the sidewalk, and we huddled up to the bar with a couple of Cristal beers. We saw two more groups, one at La Floradita, which weren’t as accomplished, but you get the picture—a pub crawl with music could go on all night there.
We had lunch one day at Vistamar, a small paladar out on the ocean in Miramar. The house sits right on the ocean, and has a pool, which in its day must have been one of the first infinity-style pools. This is a place for lobster, or shrimp, but either are as fresh and succulent as you could find anywhere in the world. I’d suggest this place for lunch, just because the street running along the ocean seems a bit sad, with more vacant lots than houses and many former homes that lie in ruins. Squint your eyes a bit into the future, and you can imagine what this stretch of Havana will look like someday.
Our favorite lunch place is one of the oldest, most highly regarded paladars in the city, the Cocina de Lilliam, on a residential street in Miramar. Run by Lilliam Dominguez, it is a lovely small house with tables under a trellis in a charming garden. You are greeted by a koi pond, and old Cuban antiques, from ceramic water coolers to ancient irons, are scattered around the interior.
The food was very, very good. Our first dish was Tamal en Cazuela, corn with tomatoes, small chunks of potato and bacon baked in the oven in a ceramic dish. It rivaled the papaya lasagna at La Guarida, and the octopus in garlic appetizer at El Gijones (see my blog, A Rainy Night in Havana.) We also had fried malanga, which is a root vegetable that is mashed up and deep-fried—one word: delicious. The restaurant has a small, temperature-controlled wine closet, but since it was lunchtime we opted for beers; Dave stuck with his favorite Cristal while I chose the fuller-bodied, slightly higher alcohol Bucanero. While we did eat lunch here, this restaurant is clearly a good choice for a romantic evening meal; the low lights and interesting décor lend themselves to intimate dining.
There are some other paladars on the radar, but those will have to wait until my next trip. The one place I’d recommend trying, only because every one says it is a fine restaurant, is La Fontana. Or the Doctor Café, run by a physician; it is also getting rave reviews right now. And, many of the restaurants in Habana Vieja just look inviting. Stick to the basics, and you probably won’t go wrong. And if you set your expectations accordingly, you won’t be disappointed either.