by Paul Brindamour, April 24, 2017
I live in a town that has a reputation for its fine restaurants from many different nationalities. We have Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Irish, Jamaican, Indian, Venezuelan, Chinese, Thai, and even Tibetan, but we don’t have a Cuban restaurant. In fact, one of the only times that I have had Cuban food at all was in Miami, and that was a number of years ago. Therefore, I didn’t quite know what to expect from Cuban food in Havana.
Although I did some research in guide books, Travel sections of major newspapers, TripAdvisor.com, and our AirBnB “House Manual” prior to going there, the real fun came when I started exploring Havana and discovering things for myself. For example: what does ballet have to do with ice cream? Very little in the US, but in Cuba, “Coppelia,” the name of a famous ballet premiered in 1870 in France, is also the brand name for its most popular ice cream parlor. When we went to Coppelia’s major retail outlet, a large, two-story pavilion, surrounded on all sides by smaller outdoor eating areas, all with table service, I saw just how popular Coppelia ice cream is. The place seats hundreds, and the weekday afternoon we went there, many of the tables were full with families and couples enjoying a frozen snack. That day, Coppelia was serving five flavors of ice cream, including guanabana, an exotic tropical fruit. When you go, be sure to notice the picture of the ballerina’s legs on the main building, while you indulge yourself.
We ate at two different types of restaurants: government run and Paladares, privately run eateries. The main thing going for the government run restaurants was price. They were a real bargain. They were also clean, with good service. The waiter brought us a menu, and later came back to tell us what was actually being served that day. The food and décor were good, but fairly basic: think wooden, straight-backed chairs and baked chicken legs. A good example of this no-frills establishment was La Dulcinea, a bakery a block from our apartment. You could get inexpensive desserts, ham and cheese sandwiches on a croissant, or a tomato-sauceless ham and cheese pizza. To save money, we bought our bottled water and twice ate dinner there.
The Paladares, on the other hand, cater to the tourists and you’ll pay more for that, although still considerably cheaper than what we’re accustomed to back home in Connecticut. Expect inviting décor, wide selection, comfortable ambiance, outstanding service and high-quality food, in Paladares. During our first evening in Havana, we came upon Café Laurent, on a 5th floor balcony, with views of the setting sun and the Caribbean, just beyond the high-rise Vedado neighborhood skyline. With their extensive menu of caringly prepared meals, attentive service, fine wines, luscious desserts and after-dinner cigars, the place fills up and a reservation is recommended. Another night we found the Café California, with its outdoor seating and live entertainment. The food was excellent, and the waiter, a real treat.
For breakfast we appreciated the quick service of the huge, great-tasting buffet at the Hotel Capri. No one went away disappointed.
OK, you’re thinking, that’s restaurant food, but how do Cubans eat? To find out, we went to an upscale farmer’s market and a government run grocery store. The farmer’s market was comparable to anything we’ve seen in Italy or Spain, with dozens of busy stalls selling fresh meat (predominantly pork), cut flowers, a colorful galaxy of tropical fruits, a large selection of greens and vegetables, and homemade cheeses. Visiting shortly after breakfast at the Hotel Capri, we sampled only some homemade peanut brittle and an unfamiliar variety of tropical fruit, the plum-colored “star apple” (Caimito). Both were fresh and tasty.
Next door was the government run grocery, which seemed to supplement this bustling farmer’s market by providing basic non-perishables. Here there were huge sacks of sugar, rice and beans, giant vats of vinegar, and necessities like bar soap.
To see how all this food was put to good use, we had two dinners at the homes of Cuban families. Our first host, Frank, was both gregarious and generous, telling us his background, and introducing us to his wife and children, before bringing us serving bowls of warm rolls, roast pork, rice, black beans, and vegetables. The food was all expertly prepared, and delicious.
Not to be outdone, our second host, Juan Daniel, prepared us a feast: an entire leg of pork, slow-roasted on his homemade barbeque grill, along with rice, black beans, yucca, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, chicharrones, three types of plantains, each prepared differently and each delicious, and an amazing tropical fruit salad, made from their own backyard orchard. After a tour of that orchard, we were treated to a homemade, hand-decorated layer cake with “plum” filling and a rich, creamy flan, both of which Juan Daniel’s mother made. What extraordinary hospitality! After three hours of great food and conversation, we were sad when our taxi arrived to bring us back to our apartment, but we certainly didn’t go away hungry.