Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.
The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.
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In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.
One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.
Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.
Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.
Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.
Otramanera steps up dining in Havana
Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.
But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.
While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.
Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman