Eating in Havana / Regina Coyula #Cuba

The Gallery Bar at the corner of 12th and 19th, Vedado.
The Gallery Bar at the corner of 12th and 19th, Vedado.

Havana does not seem very aware that despite the crisis, the year-end holiday spirit is inundating other cities worldwide. Some lighting and modest Christmas trees give a vague nod to the year moving on. The state restaurants have barely hired an expert calligrapher to write “Happy 2013” in their windows, topped by a couple of bells; this could also be done “spontaneously” with sometimes painful results.

But if the restaurants in the hands of the State offer a grim picture, the opposite happens with the restaurants appearing in the private sector, many of which have left no details to change in the organization of their festivities for the holidays.

Some local landmarks with more than 15 years behind them, such as La Guarida, La Cocina de Liliam or Le Chansonnier, take these days off; but other veterans, such as La Casa, offer an attractive Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve dinners. They will also open a snack bar on which they’ve put the finishing touches.

The private restaurants known as paladares (palates) appeared in the last two years thanks to the legal changes making this kind of effort possible, surprise us with the facilities and the professionalism of their staff. Within the gourmet category some stand out: Habana Chef, Calle 10, La Moraleja and La Galería. They are large homes adapted with good taste and functionality to the needs of a restaurant.

While some serve their usual menu during this time, La Galería, now a year-and-a-half old, offers a Christmas Eve menu far from ordinary, with salmon canapes, queso fresco with vegetables, where you can choose between banana fritters stuffed with fried meat, or crudo marinated with basil and balsamic sauce; pork loin stuffed with ham, olives and peaches in red wine reduction, berries and lemon garnish, with tamales, or turkey stuffed with olives in plum sauce perfumed with Chardonnay, accompanied with roasted sweet potatoes with bacon, and for dessert fritters with ice cream and fruit sauce or coconut cake with dried fruits in the Arab style, this plus a selection of candies, grapes and wines. To end the year, another equally exotic menu also includes grapes and a champagne toast at midnight, live music and open bar.

Black rice with squid ink, from the Chef Art Restaurant in Havana
Black rice with squid ink, from the Chef Art Restaurant in Havana

Not far behind is the recently opened París ’50. French cuisine and French-Caribbean that offers a Christmas Eve dinner with dishes including petit fours, seafood gratin with tartar sauce, turkey stuffed with ground beef, truffles, nuts and raisins in wine, garnished with peas and potatoes Provencal, and yule log and nougat for dessert. They also plan to have for the New Year dinner and live music.

When you have a corner as perfect as that at L and 25th, opposite the Hotel Habana Libre, you have to take advantage of it. Wow! A snack bar with chef offered dinner on the 24th. On the 31st they won’t open, like the 15th Floor.

The prices at these sites ranges from 25 to 50 CUC per person. So what are the most economical?

La Rosa Negra offers only carry out. For less than 12 CUC you can get over two pounds of garlic pork, or a pound of smoked loin, plus a pound of rice and beans and a pound of yucca with garlic sauce. La Taraquera offers three traditional plates where pork and yucca alternate with matajíbaro — a dish from Camaguey — and tamales with a bottle of wine, nougat and a cup of cider for 25 CUC per couple. El Farallon, as of two days ago, had not planned a special menu, but it planned to remain open with additional take-out service. At Blanco y Negro, at 12th and 23rd, for 7 CUC a person they will offer every day until January 2nd a traditional menu with 10% discount on take-out. At Paris ’50 you can take home with the same meal without drinks and dessert for 15 CUC.

Young faces, impeccable presence, professionalism. The private dining raises the bar to heights unreachable by the deteriorating State restaurants. There is a migration of personnel trained in the chef and cooking schools toward this sector, one of the few that is expanding.

Who will be the clientele in these places that have taken such care with their menus? Foreigners, some Cubans “who can,” some who make a special day of the date. These are not prices for ordinary people. Most people will eat at home on the 24th, with more or less austerity, more or less devotion, and there will be those who will have no special foods. And even on the 31st, greatly celebrated as the anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution, many will follow the Cuban custom of throwing a bucket of water off the balcony or out the window or door at midnight, with the secret hope of a new year that will truly be new.

Regina Coyula

25 December 2012

Translated from Diario de Cuba.