There are some especially enchanted places. Places that grab you on your first visit and make you come back. El Cocinero is, undoubtedly, one of the most special places in Havana: a majestic tower, an emblem of a time and a country that has faded away and is slowly coming back to life, reinventing itself like a metaphor for rebirth. This is in fact, a place that's become so popular as of lately that even Katy Perry reserved it in its entirety to host a private party during her recent visit to Cuba. At any time, any day of the week you may stumble upon a local or international celebrity, that's how special El Cocinero is.
El Cocinero bar-restaurant-lounge is an up-and-coming new venue that opened a few months ago in a piece of land formerly occupied by an important cooking oil factory.
It is an easy-to-get-to place for those staying in Havana’s popular neighbourhood of Vedado, otherwise known as the city’s downtown area. You’ll find it near the Puente de Hierro (Iron Bridge); so, if you are staying at the Habana Riviera or Cohíba hotel, it’s just a five-minute drive from there by taxi. It’s not a crazy idea to make your way there on foot as it’s a pleasant 15-minute journey along the Malecón, and seeing it opens at 6:00 pm, the timing is ideal for a late afternoon stroll. If you are booked in at the Occidental Miramar or at any of the other hotels in the residential Miramar neighbourhood, it will take you no more than eight minutes by taxi to get there.
The terrace, surrounded by very comfortable sofas, is the life and magic of the place. It’s lovely to let yourself sink in while sipping a tasty beverage, listening to music and simply letting time go by. It’s a great space for bringing your friends along, reserving a table and throwing a small party. Without hesitation, I give a nodding approval to both options for either ocassion to be celebrated at El Cocinero anytime.
The gravel path that leads to the side of the chimney is minimally decorated in a rustic style: cogwheels, parts of a sugar mill, water extractors and a bell that tolls announcing new clients coming in. Going up the unending spiral staircase inside the chimney triggers the delightful excitement of discovery.
The last step on the staircase leads you to an open and breezy terrace. In the evenings, when the radiant Caribbean sun bids farewell as it sinks beneath the clouds amidst blurry hues of striking colours, the characteristic (and wonderful) smell of sea salt adds to the experience. Another added bonus is the lookout to Almendares River and the fishing facilities that run with it.
What about eating?
There is an interesting variety of dishes at El Cocinero. In order of preference, I recommend the grilled octopus and tuna tartar, which I believe to be two of the most delicious dishes you can have here with an exquisite presentation that’s both simple and modern. The octopus soaks up the smoky charcoal aroma. Seasoned with olive oil (and I’m guessing, some other secret ingredient), it comes accompanied by slices of potatoes.
The tuna tartar is unique to this place. I don’t know how they make it, but I’ve never been able to resist ordering it. The side dish of bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a perfect accompaniment: fresh and abundant, as it should be.
The Argentinian cured ham dish is another speciality of the house. The spicy potatoes are really hot, sizzling hot… for the brave ones. And the Spanish sausages: chorizo, black pudding and Catalan butifarra are the true masters of the house.
Salads deserve a special ovation for their sheer abundance and freshness; particularly, the chicken salad that successfully defies calories in a green sea of lettuce - a perfect choice.
When it comes to sweet endings…Let’s put it this way: this is not a place for desserts. Nevertheless, the cheesecake is not to be overlooked.
They do much better in the food menu than at the bar. I will never order a fruit Daiquirí here again: they simply do not get along with frappe. Nonetheless, they always have a perfect gin tonic and a master Mojito. Vodka tonic, caipiroska, negroni, appletinis and the beers are served in bottles, thus deserving a special mention. The prices are OK, they range between $3.00 and $5.00 CUC.
The service is attentive and prompt. Like at most bars in Havana, you’ll find a bit of rustiness and slowness at the cash desk. This is probably the one aspect where this place underscores.
If you come to Havana and you want to have a good time, El Cocinero will probably be one of the best options. It’s a good idea to make a reservation, but by no means is this essential as you can almost always find a table. In any case, the phone number are listed below.
El Cocinero is not your average eatery in Havana. It’s a bar-restaurant that stands out from the crowd and which I recommend for friendly get-togethers or special occasions. A gifted place with a delightful mystique. It’s a tower with a deserving name from which you can enjoy all of Havana’s glittering colours in an atmosphere of intimacy. A truly enchanting place because of its uniqueness.
If you want an even better stroll before you end your night here (or after you’ve a stop here) the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C) (Factory of Cuban Art) sits just next door and is one of the most interesting cultural projects in Cuba nowadays. I will give you more details of this trendy hangout spot in one of my next posts.