One doesn’t or shouldn’t go to Cuba for the food. There are too many shortages of great cooking ingredients. But with the opportunities opening up to allow for private restaurants (paladors), many in converted homes, one can have some pretty wonderful dining experiences. And it’s always an experience on top of the food. We recently spent about a week in Santiago de Cuba and Havana and had some memorable meals, along with mediocre buffets and “group” meals. I’ll talk about the highlights.
Santiago is Cuba’s second largest city with 500,000 people but it feels like a small town. Also, there was extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy so we did not see it as its best. But we had a great meal at Compay Gallo (San German 3), housed in a beautiful Art Deco home with terrazzo floors and a marvelous staircase with no banister, a la Baragan, leading up to the third floor where the restaurant is. Service, food, and presentation were great. The most spectacular dish was my appetizer of shrimp cocktail, a generous serving of shrimp and crab with homemade mayonnaise, served on top of a small fishbowl with 2 live goldfish in it. Pictures were taken! My main course of lamb stew was in a thick, rich dark sauce served with rice and malanga, a starchy tuber. Other entrees were well-executed with individual integrity, very Impressive as our group of 8 were the only customers besides 2 couples. I’d go back there.
A pizza and pasta dinner at the Ristorante Italiana la Fontana at the Melia Santiago Hotel (where 5 stars is a real stretch of the imagination) was just fine, nothing special. The breakfast buffet at the hotel is very good, including a roast pig! A lunch at Restaurante Zunzun (Av. Mandulay 159), in a restored mansion, was like a Rotary banquet meal with satisfactory grilled fish. Although those who got the curry chicken were impressed.
Havana is a marvelous city just waiting for redevelopment to explode and fortunately the restaurant scene has some stars. Our best meal was at Café Laurent (Calle M 257), near the National Hotel, a civic treasure with plumbing that makes its 5-star rating questionable. The 5th floor of an apartment building reached by a temperamental but charming elevator has been turned into a wonderful restaurant. Our lovely and friendly server made us feel special and the fresh mahi mahi done a couple of different ways, salads with real lettuce, tasty ceviche, delicious gazpacho, and a decent albeit small wine list made our group of 7 very happy eaters. We also had a very nice meal at Dona Eutimia (Callejon del Charro) on an alley near the Cathedral, with some superb appetizers like croquettas and fried fish bites with different sauces. We expected the paella for 2 to have more varieties of seafood, but the lobster was nice and portion generous. Those who got lobster as an entree had plenty to share. Service and presentation were perfect and everyone had a good time, hoping to share cigars as we left but finding the wind coming through the alley greater than our lighting skills.
Our first tour meal in Havana was at the lovely La Ferminia (av. 5 # 18207), apparently a Castro favorite, where we ate in the beautiful garden next to the beautiful mansion with marble floors and several dining rooms. They feature brochettes with a very good chicken and a nicely flavored but tough beef. And tres leches cake for dessert, all accompanied by a music trio. I recommend it for its beauty. The group also had lunch at La Domenica (O’Reilly #108), a lovely Italian restaurant with decent pizza and spaghetti and accompanying live music. Our final tour celebratory dinner was held at the beautiful Café del Oriente appropriately on the Plaza de San Francisco. The formal dining rooms look like they should be in New Orleans or Charleston, so no reeking of local color. A nice onion soup was followed by a decent steak and a good flan. We didn’t make it there, but those in our group who went to Palador La Guarida, featured in the film, Strawberries and Chocolate, thought it was fantastic. So our number 1 choice for the return trip to fascinating, enigmatic, beautiful Cuba.