I confess: I love octopus dishes in Cuba. There's no shame in that. Right?
I could try to explain it away by suggesting that when I'm looking for a simple benchmark to compare restaurants for either business or personal reasons, I like to have a common dish that can show off the strength, or weakness, of a kitchen. That would be a true statement for this last assignment that I've been reporting for more than 10 days, and nearly 30 restaurants, in Havana. But it would also be a lie. I love octopus, so it's a convenient choice for a benchmark dish.
The rationalization, in this case, also has a solid foundation as a culinary test. Octopus can be easily screwed up. Cook it too long and it turns rubbery. Lay on too much seasoning and you can wipe out the subtleties of its origins from the sea. But, in the hands of creative chef, you can discover the extent of their skills—raw, marinated in citrus juice, cooked in the just the right amount of oil and garlic, or grilled on a hot coal fire. Properly prepared, and showing off its freshness, it can be a revelation.
So, how many times have I had some version of octopus this month? Hmmm. I've lost track. I can only hope it doesn't have some still undisclosed concentration of mercury, or some other ocean pollutant, because I've exceeded the monthly quota by a mile. I have had it in just about every cookbook version I've ever read about. Grilled, lightly warmed and then thin-sliced with a lime marinade, garlic and chopped potatoes, cut into small pieces and served with sliced peppers and a green salad, steeped in a small ceramic dish with olive oil and garlic. There have been a couple of misfires. A large tough octopus. One overcooked. But the vast majority have been outstanding.
One note. The seafood here in Havana is almost always spectacular. There are fishing communities on the east and west sides of Havana, and the fisherman head out every day, returning with fresh catch. The new world of privately owned restauarnts, called paladars, often have direct relationships with a particular fisherman, or group of fishermen. Octopus apparently is among the daily deliveries, and the best restaurants almost always have it on the menu.
Would I eliminate a restaurant from our final recommendations if it did not have octopus on the menu? Of course not. I have a much more tolerant attitude than that. But, of course, I'd have to wonder how a serious chef in Cuba could avoid putting it on their menus. I can't imagine they don't feel about it the way I do.