Cuban food in Cuba? A cinch, I thought. But common wisdom was that restaurants there were poor and served only passable versions of familiar Cuban dishes done better in Miami or New York. And it was, for the most part, true.
Paladar Doña Eutimia: Callejón del Chorro 60-C, Habana Vieja. Phone: 861-1332.
Nao: Calle Obispo 1, Habana Vieja. Phone: 867-3463.
Mamá Inéz: Calle de la Obrapia 60, Habana Vieja. Phone: 862-2669.
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As we barrel ahead into the 21st century, the exuberant citizens of Cuba struggle to come to terms with a regime that has barely budged in over 50 years of ironclad rule. Small freedoms have been won recently, cracks in the walls have appeared. People are freer to leave. Dissidents are left in relative peace. Gays are no longer jailed and even have their own beach. And the restaurant scene, from a visitor’s perspective anyway, is blossoming.
The Cuban government has allowed the private ownership of paladares (the word paladar means palate or taste), privately owned small restaurants, since the 1990s. At first, home cooks opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. But restrictions were placed on the number of tables as well as the menu. Seafood was strictly under the counter, for example, keeping restaurants at a basic level.
Rules have been relaxed somewhat in the last couple of years as a concession to the call for free enterprise, or perhaps better said, reality. There is more tourism now: new, sophisticated visitors who come for music, food and culture — not just cigars and the beach. So some paladares have blossomed into full-fledged professional operations: maître d’s, wine lists, reservations accepted.
Some aim for the international hipster. Le Chansonnier, for example is set in an old mansion where black-clad staff serve contemporary cuisine to the likes of visiting Spanish royalty.
More interesting are several new venues that celebrate traditional Cuban cuisine. These places see fit to rescue and restore classic cooking. Recipes that languished in books or in the memories of grandmothers who lived before the revolution are being revived. Nowadays a wider variety of raw ingredients is available, and chefs, as well as the home cooks who can, are taking advantage of this wealth while exploring the rich lexicon of criollo cooking. Lobster, fish, lamb, even venison can be procured with some effort — indeed, most materia prima is produced on the island.
The view from Havana
A case in point is Restaurante Mama Inéz, named after a famous folk song (“Ay mamá Inéz, ay mamá Inéz, todos los negros tomamos café“). It’s one of the best of this new breed.
Located in the heart of restored Habana Vieja, the décor is homey, like an old-fashioned Italian trattoria, and the menu is classic, with dishes that would make any Cuban mama proud. Chef Erasmo meticulously prepares an artisanal version of arroz con pollo, the iconic Cuban dish. It’s made to order and served in a ceramic cazuela. Like a good risotto, the rice is al dente, little chunks of boned chicken are tender and the sauce fragrant, well balanced and made more complex by the addition of tomatoes, white wine, beer, green pepper, garlic and achiote (annatto). This is home-style cooking at its best; no corners are cut.
Another popular spot near the cathedral, Doña Eutimia, serves Cuban food, traditional albeit gussied up. The menu includes many well-known classics, such as ropa vieja and picadillo. The mariscada del chef, sautéed seafood served in a lobster shell, is somewhat reminiscent of a New Orleans-style étouffée. This is Caribbean cooking at its best.
Nao, which recently opened in Habana Vieja, is yet another venue for highfalutin Cuban cuisine. Its food is unpretentious and doesn’t turn its back on tradition. According to the chef, dishes are similar to those that would have been prepared during the colonial era in which a profound mix of African, Spanish and French influence can be detected. Case in point is deep-fried whole pargo, a meaty fish, whose crust is fragrant with cumin and garlic. Or the stuffed tostones, fried mashed plantain “boats” with four different fillings, both surf and turf, which are imaginative and modern but steeped in tradition: after all, tostones accompany almost every meal in every table in Cuba.
This is not to say that everything is smooth sailing. Like everyone else on the island, a restaurateur’s life is not easy. Shortages of taken-for-granted goods as tomatoes and onions are commonplace, sudden blackouts frequent. But, in keeping with the positive spirit of the people, these handicaps are overcome. And it mustn’t be forgotten that in Cuba the majority will never enter this kind of restaurant and will barely scrape by on beans and rice. So it’s a small miracle that this gastronomic revival, supported by visitors and the privileged few nationals who can afford the price of admission, is taking place.
I will now return on one of my frequent sojourns with light-headed gustatory expectation. I know I won’t be let down.
Top photo: Stuffed plátanos (plantains) at Nao. Credit: Nicholas Gilman