The first time I went to Starbien I was dubious. I didn’t like the name as it sounded too much like a fast food chain, and I’m not a fan of these ventures. In fact, I’m highly sceptical of convenience food and its highly processed, unimaginative by-products. But this time I had been invited by a friend of mine who’s known for his love of good food, fine drinks and enjoying a good cigar on special occasions.
With a name composition that unites two Cuban words in one to mean “feel good” or “be well”, this is one eatery I was eager to put to the test. If I had to name this place after a song, I’d choose "Don't worry, be happy" by Bobby McFerrin, because in between courses and chats, you’ll feel relaxed and peaceful here. In short, you’ll feel good, just like the restaurant’s name promises.
1, 2, 3… testing
First, we must start with the food. I’d struggle to recommend a dish here, because everything on the menu is indescribably good, absolutely delicious; from the appetisers right to the desserts. A succulent ceviche, the exciting croquettes of the house, the breaded fish fillet with sesame seeds on top. To tell you the truth, all that we have tried at Starbien has been good, really good!
Secondly, at Starbien we found a neat, friendly, prompt and, above all, efficient service, not commonplace in the majority of Cuban restaurants.
And thirdly, this restaurant is housed in an elegant space with artistic, tasteful decoration and natural flowers.
Ever since my first visit, I persistently try and indulge in a meal at Starbien whenever I can, particularly at lunch times on week days. At a fixed price of $10.00 CUC per person, Starbien’s executive lunch menus include a breadbasket with two different dressings, a starter, a main course to choose from five options, home-made dessert (also with different choices) or coffee and a drink. This type of menu certainly surpasses others similar ones to be found in other places around the city, and now many of those are trying to step up to the plate and offer similar choices, something you might think of as the usual follow-up business response in other cities around the world, but a definite first in Havana.
Top picks and what not to miss if I were you
Probably, the restaurant’s strongest point is the perfect symbiosis of international and Cuban food. This restaurant does not pretend to be what it is not. The owners are clear about the essence of a good restaurant: offering good food in a pleasant atmosphere.
They use high-quality, fresh ingredients and have a steady supply. I don’t know how they manage to do it – in Cuba a frequently replenished stock of ingredients is a rarity, but this is part of their hallmark.
The above-mentioned ceviche is right to my taste, neither too acidic nor raw; a delight.
The Beef Carpaccio is at the same level; well-cut, well-seasoned and it melts in the mouth.
We Cubans like fried food. I occasionally allow myself to indulge in one or two of these crispy delights: the croquettes and the malanga (taro) fritters from Starbien, which have been made to stretch the rules and avoid thinking about calories.
On Cuban food
My strongest recommendation is the black beans thickened with olive oil. I believe they don’t taste the same if made outside Cuba. There is something hidden in the beans or in the way only us Cubans prepare them, that we truly manage to get the best out of them.
From the sea
My choice here is the grilled swordfish with sauteed vegetables. This is what I ordered on my first visit and the cut of the fillet (neither too thin nor thick) and the cooking time were perfect. It was juicy, but well-cooked thoroughly (no raw bits). I appreciated that a lot, because the cook must have a very special skill to make it that way. It’s hard for me to achieve that kind of fish-cooking perfection when I cook at home.
They also make a tasty grilled lobster and delicious fried prawns with garlic. I’m allergic to both so I haven’t tried them myself, but I can tell that the lobster looks and smells delicious, and by looking at the faces of those who have tucked into them, I dare say they taste just as good they look.
From the land
There is plenty to choose from at Starbien in terms of meat cuts, but the roast pork chunks and the chicken with dried fruit are two good choices. The former is a classic dish from our cuisine and at Starbien it´s simply exquisite due to the high quality of the meat. The pork chunks are very juicy and come with a finger-linking creole sauce on top.
The chicken is a more refined dish. The combination of dried fruits and nuts (raisins, almonds and more) with onion and garlic plus the herbs used to season the dish are praiseworthy.
For me the guava dessert, a Cuban classic named “Cascos de Guayaba” and which can loosely translate as “Guava Helmets” is a standout on the menu. Prepared with cream cheese in a very Cuban style of mixing salty and sweet food, this is one sweet dish I dare say you haven´t tried before.
If you are not Cuban odds are you won´t be familiar with it, but this is a great opportunity to try something new and wholly Cuban. You´ll be able to judge how good we are at making such delicious mixes. This peculiar dessert is made with natural guavas boiled with sugar. The guavas distil their own syrup, resulting in a very mouth-watering texture, taste and colour. The cream cheese perfectly seals this made-in-heaven marriage.
Starbien is located inside a two-story house, with both levels offering terrace space to eat al fresco. I do prefer the terrace, but during the summer months I recommend you take advantage of the cooling air conditioning indoors.
In general, the decoration is sober, modern, predominantly green in colour and showcasing different Cuban art pieces. I feel it all fits and blends in perfect harmony.
There should be more places like this is Havana. Places where you can relax, enjoy the food and the atmosphere, and come out satisfied. Let’s be honest, when you go out you want to eat well; you don’t want to return home, open the fridge and prepare a sandwich. You can get that satisfaction in Starbien. Feel good, feel very good!!!!