Gail Ciampa | The Providence Journal | January 27, 2016
The Journal’s food editor chronicles the colorful, inventive private restaurant scene she discovered on a recent trip to the island nation.
HAVANA, Cuba — When Rhode Islanders travel to Cuba next month on trips with the Providence Preservation Society and Providence’s Temple Beth-El, they no doubt expect to find a land frozen in time.
On a trip I took to the island in November, I certainly found many iconic ’50s images, from photos of Marilyn Monroe hanging in restaurants, to rusted gas-company signs adorning businesses, to the classic American cars driving along the Malecón in Havana. But from the first stop on my tour to an organic farm, I knew there was another story.
They don’t have a lot of things in this poor country, but they make the most of what they have, especially when it comes to food. As relations open up tourist opportunities for Americans, some creative movements are under way. And the warmth of the Cuban people serves it all up in style.
Though food here is simple by our standards of seasoning and taste, I saw some of the most beautiful plates of food at paladars, the private restaurants that now operate in Cuba at the hands of chefs and entrepreneurs. Paying a monthly tax of 10 percent to the government, they have sprung up in apartments, outdoor spaces and farmhouses. If the site was a mansion before Castro’s revolution, as is the case at San Cristóbal in Havana, you’ll find a bathtub and shower in a large bathroom. At farms, you’ll find outbuildings.
Clocks and religious items and other objects from homes decorate the restaurants. There’s no budget for designers. Guests sit on mismatched chairs and eat off different styles of dishes. But the men and women running the small kitchens take such care plating the food that many dishes are as pretty as a picture.
At Havana’s La Cocina de Lilliam, in a residential neighborhood in Playa, where some of the city’s best food is served, a plate of fish fillets was adorned with a goldfish swimming in a glass. It may not be everyone’s idea of good design, but it’s the kind of folk art being tried here. It’s hard to do anything but admire the initiative.
Five flights up in a Havana apartment house you’ll find No. 9, Cafe Laurent, a modern paladar with clean lines and glorious views. Meals are served in three rooms of the space that still resembles an apartment. Also located several flights up in Old Havana is Ivan Chef Justo, a two-level paladar with a bar on the roof and a kitchen smaller than what you would see on a boat. But their chalkboard menu is rich with with seafood dishes, paella and ceviche.
At El Figaro, you dine outside in Old Havana, and they decorate the white tablecloths with fresh red rose petals.
At some paladars, such as Cafe Ajiaco, which is in Cojimar, where Ernest Hemingway kept his boat the Pilar and not far from his home Finca La Vigía, jars of hot sauce sit on some tables because seasonings are few and far between in Cuba. Here they make Cuban coffee the old-fashioned way, pushing the beans through a well-worn cloth.
Cuban coffee is wonderful. It’s rich, delicious, sweetened with sugar and served espresso size. Many Americans prefer to order café con leche, which is more like a latte and not sweetened.
Oil and vinegar accompany salads made with lettuce and cucumbers and maybe tomatoes or cabbage. Most meals include beans, rice and a piece of chicken or pork. Squash is the vegetable of choice. Dessert is nearly always flan, sweet custard.
The meals are inexpensive by American standards, with meat dishes priced at $10 to $15 for places described to us as expensive. Cristal — Cuban beer, or cerveza, not the fancy Champagne — costs $1 to $2, depending on where you are.
Mojitos, which are as excellent in Cuba as you’d expect, made with Havana Club Rum, cost about $2.50. Drink them in style at the state-run hotel, the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which was a playground for Americans before Castro.
All the paladars are proud to serve lobster, which Cuba exports. They do not resemble our cold-water crustaceans, but the Cubans present them beautifully on a plate, nowhere more elegantly than at Varadero 60, a restaurant mostly set up outside in the seaside tourist town of Varadero, a few hours outside of Havana.
You’ll mostly see tourists at the paladars, some from Europe or South America, where Cuba is an inexpensive trip. Only at the Hanoi Cooperative, in the Alamar district of Havana, did Cubans dine among us, enjoying pizzas on a Saturday afternoon.
Locals waited an hour in Matanzas, called the Venice of Cuba for its culture and water views, for a table at the beautiful grand dining room at Restaurante Romantico San Severino, whose owner proudly showed us his TripAdvisor sticker. Humberto R. Gerente regularly thanks customers on the travel site when they write a nice review. Not so frozen in time is he.
No American credit cards are accepted here, so you change your cash to CUCs, the convertible Cuban peso used by tourists that are roughly equivalent to a dollar.
Cubans make an average of $12 to $20 CUCs a month, which makes dining out impossible. They still get rations for milk and other staples. Grocery store shelves are generally bare.
At a market where fruits and vegetables as well as meats are sold, middle men sell the food. Cubans bring their own bags or else have to buy plastic ones like those we get at the grocery store. There’s lots of haggling over price, and you won’t find potatoes here. It’s illegal for anyone but the government to have them, as they are few and precious. You realize how amazing it is for those paladars to produce what they do.
Food is not all Cuba and its people need. It needs a huge investment in infrastructure, including for the sewer systems across the island and for the gorgeous buildings in Old Havana, an average of 1.2 of which collapse each day. Internet access is spotty and hard to come by.
The easing of U.S. travel restrictions brings average Cubans hope of foreign investment and help. This is why visitors are welcomed with open arms, and Cubans point to their hearts when they see American tourists go by.