Of course, eating in large hotels and restaurants in groups of over 100 people is not the way to sample a nation’s cuisine. What I was longing to do was convince one of our guides to take us home to their Mom and get me a Cuban home cooking lesson. But that was not happening on our tight schedule, and it’s not like I had Batali and Bittman to show me around…
It’s also important to remember that this was Cuban food seen through the eyes of an American visitor enjoying the privileges of a four star welcome and with money to spend. For native Cubans, who must live with rations and an extremely limited income, it’s a whole different story. (I”ll be talking about agriculture and food supply issues in an upcoming post.)
All that said, I had some memorable meals in Cuba. Enough for me to know that I did not begin to scratch the surface of Cuban cuisine on this trip. Maybe next time....
This restaurant occupies the remains of Cuba’s oldest coffee plantation, and is located in Las Terrazas, a restored eco-system in Pinar del Rio. (More on that in a later post..)
Buenavista’s small kitchen is housed behind the restaurant.
The views are phenomenal, lending the restaurant it’s name.
This was my favorite meal of the trip.
Acosta No 260-A e/. Habana y Compostele
Habana Vieje. Tel 861-6733
This restaurant was a gift from a local on a hot Sunday after a long morning spent at the Craft Market. A simple request for a recommendation for a quick bite, and we were led on a ramble through the streets of Habana Vieje to an unmarked doorway, where small but well-maintained stairs led us up to this lovely rooftop restaurant. Our volunteer guide waited downstairs for us as we ate, so as to lead us back to our starting point – in exchange, of course, for a peso or two, which we were more than happy to give.
We were down to our last pesos that day, my friend, but the warm weather kept our appetites small enough to fit our wallets and the spontaneous little meal we shared was one of the best of the trip.
First, a mango, decorated with a small umbrella and a sprig of mint. Then bread with assorted accompaniments – in our case, we chose a simple light tuna salad and a tomato salsa. Washed down with cold agua con gas, it was a delightful small repast on a very hot summer day.
We had the place to ourselves that afternoon, and the service was personal and attentive, despite the fact that we warned the waiter up front how little we had to spend. One day, we’ll return to sample the more extensive Afro-Cuban offerings of the wonderful little restaurant.
We so enjoyed the rooftop glimpses of neighboring homes, each a little vignette of life on this island so close, yet so far far from our American shores.
La Domenica Restaurant
O´reilly y mercaderes.
la habana vieja. 860 2918
Located near Plaza de la Catedral in the beautifully restored section of Habana Vieja, La Domenica has been called the best Italian restaurant in Habana. We stumbled upon it, attracted by the outdoor tables shaded by white umbrellas and an amazingly cheap patio menu. (The indoor menu is much pricier.) The umbellas came in handy when the afternoon’s regular downpour occurred halfway through our meal, an event that did little to spoil the meal.
The tuna salad appetizer was perfect, served with the traditional cuban salad of shredded carrots, cucumber, tomato and cooked cold green beans. A few olives reminded us we were at an Italian restaurant, and we washed it down with sparkling lemonade.
The chicken was another Cuban leaning dish, served with rice and beans, at the ridiculously low price of 6 pesos! But the best was the small pizza – unlike any I’ve eaten before, spiced a bit differently and made with a bread that was crisp, light but thicker than the brick oven pizzas I’ve eaten here in the States – Perhaps a little Cuban bread crust?
Zulueta #658, 2nd floor near Apodaca
A bit kitchy, but the service is excellent, and the pulled pork is the best I’ve ever eaten. (It tastes nothing like what we’ve been eating for years at La Caridad
here in NYC.) The Cuban rice and beans (Arroz Congri) was also delicious. The seafood soup was simple – lots of fish in a tomato based spicy broth – and could have been good, but the fish was overcooked, as it was also in the seafood entree. But the bread ! Bite-sized soft balls served along a sombrero brim, with garlic oil for dipping. Enjoy it with a Cuban beer.
You’ll have trouble finding the restaurant, but the cab drivers know it, and will escort you into the unmarked building and upstairs.
Pause and enjoy the art gallery just outside the dining room, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a floor show on the stage there. Don’t let the waitress talk you into ordering too much food, as we did. The portions are large enough to share, so do so.
Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja
Our final night celebration dinner was a feast served to us in Plaza de la Catedral by El Patio, one of Cuba’s most famous restaurants. Even the downpour that chased us from the square into the restaurant could not spoil the gorgeous setting. The truth is, I don’t remember much of the meal beyond the mojito, the delicious appetizer – a tower of mango and lobster- the wonderful conversation and the moving speeches and singing. Most memorable moments – singing U2’s MLK – “If a thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain” (and it did…) – and the heartfelt Bawo Thixo Somandla (For you, Sherry…).
Any Mango Tree
The mango everywhere was incredible, and the highlight of our daily breakfast. But when we found this mango tree at las Terrazas, we knew we had hit the mother load.
Go ahead – Grab a ripe one down, peel it and enjoy the best fruit you’ll ever eat! Or, eat it like a native – roll it back and forth between your hands to soften it, then bite off the end and suck out the juices.
Up next – I try my hand at Cuban Bread