The New Cuisine of Havana Cuba
The New Cuisine of Havana, Cuba
My first visit to Cuba in 2000 was in many ways characterized by my first dinner, itself an introduction to the fascinating contradictions which were to unfold during my first week in this remarkable urban culture. After suggesting a restaurant my driver delivered me to a tiny house located on an innocuous street in the Centro district, far from the more touristic plazas of Habana Vieja. In the front room of this home I experienced my first paladar, or private restaurant, and ate succulent pollo asado while the cook's small children raced around my table.
The paladares first emerged in the post-Soviet era of the late 1990s, a remarkable experiment of private enterprise in a world of Cuban state agencies and state employees. These existed primarily in homes and were limited by law to only twelve chairs. In the course of my many visits during the next ten years, these tiny eating places proved to be a daily reprieve from the frequently uninspired state restaurant fare.
Cuban food can be loosely considered to fall within four distinct categories: state restaurants, street food, home cooking and the privately owned and operated eating places. It is this last group, however, that has completely transformed itself since the advent of the new economic laws of 2010, which introduced many new private enterprise licenses related to food. Cuba's new tourism is perfectly coincident with the paladares of today which are larger, innovatively designed restaurants of high style that in many cases are established upon a foundation of offshore capital.
The food itself has been transformed as well. In recognition of the culinary preferences of the foreigner, the fusion Caribbean fare newly available is nonetheless inextricably fused with traditional Cuban cooking, and as such draws steady support from both tourists and the bourgeoning number of wealthier Cubans. At its roots, Cuban cuisine is generously protein rich with seafood from the island's own waters; now even traditional langosta Batabanó, a powerful lobster dish, is likely to be reinterpreted. Some of my sturdiest favorites (ropa vieja, garbanzos fritos and sometimes even the luxuriously thick bean soup, frijoles dormidos) keep changing in subtle, innovative ways.
Any discussion of restaurant lore is necessarily to include a brief list of the best. All three mentioned here represent in strong terms the new generation of private restaurant cuisine now sweeping the culinary scene in Havana. My deep attachment to the Vedado district has caused me to focus on that area.
Restaurante El Idilio, 351 G Street
El Idilio features an extraordinary mixta del mar, a seafood selection that includes incredibly tender octopus, swordfish and camaron garnished with pureed malanga and grilled vegetables.
Mediterráneo Havana, 406 13th Street
An amazing marriage of Cuban and Italian food, the owners specialize in mushroom vegetable risotto, poached swordfish with olives and tomatoes, and a startling repertoire of European and Cuban desserts.
Viphavana, 9th and F Street
On a 20-foot wall in this highly designed space, vintage black and white American films are screened while patrons enjoy the best paella in the city along with many other fusion favorites.
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