The 2012 restaurant scene in Havana is about as volatile as I told you it would be in the November/December issue about the city. There are new restaurants opening all the time, and people are constantly asking, “Have you heard about this place?” Or, “Have you heard about that place?” The answer is usually, “No, it must be brand new, but thanks for letting me know.”
Two places kept coming across the radar screen. Le Chansonnier was brand new, having opened in October. San Cristóbal existed last year but we didn’t have the chance to visit during our last trip. We did revisit two restaurants: El Aljibe and Doctor Café. The roast chicken at El Aljibe, which we paired with Albariño, was even better than we remembered. Doctor Café served up a fantastic lunch for a table of 10 including Vaca Frita, a fried beef dish.
Calle J 257 entre 15 y Linea
Vedado, La Habana
Nestled on a treelined street among classic Havana townhouses, Le Chansonnier doesn’t even have a sign alerting passersby to its location. Laura Fernandez Cordova, the pretty young co-owner, greets diners at the door. The co-owner chef is Hector Higueres. We ordered an octopus with garlic and curried shrimp for appetizers; the octopus was a perfectly balanced combination of grilled taste, with the bright acidity of a sliced carambola, or star fruit; the curry sauce on the shrimp was rich and mildly spicy.
My main course was a grilled cherna, or red grouper, and the other dish was red snapper, with a choice of two sauces—tomato with ginger or a caper and anchovy vinaigrette; we preferred the latter. The wine list is also standard, and changes frequently based on what’s available; we drank a Spanish white, a Viña Sol.
San Rafael No. 469, entre Lealtad
The brightly colored sign of San Cristóbal hangs out over one of the crumbling, narrow streets in Centro Havana, not far from Habana Vieja, and just a couple of streets over from La Guarida, Havana’s best paladar. The paladar is headed by chef Carlos Cristóbal Márquez. He started us off with an assortment of his appetizers, everything from two kinds of ceviche, to sliced meats and cheeses. And, my favorite, fried malanga, a deep-fat fried root vegetable common in Cuba. We ordered lobster tail and a fish called pes perro, a dense white meat fish that was delicious. San Cristóbal has one of the largest menus I’ve seen in Havana, and by the far the largest that I’ve seen in a paladar.
Rather than run through the offerings, just assume that you can find about anything on this menu and follow the same rule that I always use: stick to simple preparations and you won’t go wrong.