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RSW Living Magazine

Eating Well in Havana: Cuban culinary scene is thriving

Jun 26, 2017 09:54PM ● By Kevin

Dining poolside at the Vista Mar grill. Photo by Gina Birch.

If you think Cuban food consists only of black beans, rice, plantains and pressed sandwiches, think again. The culinary scene of Havana is thriving with inventive, creative cuisine.

I often hear complaints from Americans who have recently traveled to Cuba and were, more often than not, disappointed by the food. Clearly they did not go to the right places.

The best food in Havana is found in the paladares, restaurants in private homes not endorsed by but still taxed by the government. Culinary experts often compare government-owned establishments to big chains in the United States; the quality and hospitality are not always the same as the mom-and-pop places.

Vista Mar was among the first paladares to open in Havana, 21 years ago. We dined around the pool of this 1950s waterfront home, with groovy music playing in the background and a spectacular view of the water.

“The restaurant was originally upstairs in the owner’s living room, and she cooked,” says manager Aymara Garciga. “She’s 84 now, and we have a professional chef.” Vista Mar now has a downstairs dining area referred to as the grill, while the upstairs menu offers more Mediterranean options.

Not all restaurants in Havana have wine, and the selection is often limited, but at Vista Mar, Garciga says, “the wine list is an important part of the experience. It’s difficult because you don’t find everyday the same wine. You have to go to a lot of stores in Havana.”

Our table was overflowing with dishes, including a velvety pumpkin soup, delectable grilled octopus, hearty white beans and chorizo, mouthwatering mahi ceviche, perfectly seared filet mignon with a creamy plantain puree and pepper mojo, and a seafood platter generously loaded with shrimp, lobster and a chunk of fish.

Restaurants in Havana are truly farm and fisherman to fork; the food is bright, colorful and flavorful. Ingredient shortages and import restrictions, however, can affect what’s being served.

Take, for example, the famous Cuban sandwich. Finding them is rare, as flour is on the list of endangered ingredients, putting bread in short supply.

You will find the sandwich at Hotel Nacional, a place that set the standard for elegance and glamour back in the day. Not all of our sandwiches were pressed equally, but they were a delight on the terrace while listening to live music, gazing across the lush gardens and into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The mojitos served in the hotel’s Bar Historico are topped with a dark rum floater and a dash of bitters. The outdoor bar serves the traditional version: a healthy scoop of sugar, lime juice and yerba buena (mint) muddled then splashed with white rum and soda water. You can’t escape mojitos in Havana, and you shouldn’t; they cost anywhere from $2.50 to $6.

The drink’s alleged birthplace and one of Ernest Hemingway’s famous haunts is La Bodeguita del Medio in old Havana. Known for music and drinks but not always quality food, the traditional Cuban fare served here has improved over the years; be sure to write your name on the wall before you leave.

Similar places within walking distance include Sloppy Joes (not at all like the gritty bar in Key West) and the iconic El Floridita—two examples of historic places for a cocktail and photo op, not dining.

A popular start to meals is frituras de malanga, a type of taro root that is shredded and made into balls, fried until crisp and served with honey and other sauces. You can’t have just one, and they are a must at El del Frente.

Flan with rice pudding is a classic dessert at La Bodeguita del Medio. Photo by Gina Birch.

Owned by the same owners of the well-known O’Reilly 304, Frente occupies a space across the street that is barely big enough to turn around in but one of the most sought-after places to dine in Havana. Frente has a cocktail list that could rival many bars in Southwest Florida.

The food is stunning and, without exception, cooked to perfection. The juicy steak churrasco is served on a giant plate with black beans, guiso de maiz and pico de gallo. The empanadas are meaty, crisp and make the best of friends when dipped into the tomato preserve they are served with.

Sophisticated and inventive, El Cocinero is a chic spot in an old peanut oil factory, next to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, one of the most popular contemporary art galleries in Havana. If you don’t dine here, at least have a cocktail in the tower bar. The stairs are a bit treacherous, but the view is worth it.

On the flip side is Santy, a small speakeasy kind of place in a fishing village at the mouth of the Jaimanitas River. With an unmarked door and a long narrow, bright blue passage, the place used to be an unauthorized paladar.

The handful of tables on the deck are set with forks, as well as chop sticks, for some of the best sashimi you’ll ever have. The tuna tataki and mahi ceviche are perfectly simple and delicious, and a plate of stone crabs cost about $10. The octopus cooked in garlic and olive oil was some of the best in Havana.

I averaged about $35 a dinner before tip, with drinks and a generous amount of ordering. The value was well worth every penny and then some. As dictated by the government, however, prices are starting to go up.

People in Havana are passionate about so many things, especially their food, and it shows.

Written by Gina Birch, a regular contributor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.