Canadian writer sings the praises of Cuba´s evolving culinary scene

Posted: 08-Jan-19 10:38

Invited to experience western Cuba in all its splendour, especially on the verge of Havana’s 500th anniversary this year, Canadian travel writer, journalist and editor at National Post, Nancy Truman made it her mission to find out whether Cuba deserved its bad reputation for “bland food”. She quickly discovered that Cuban cuisine is not only far from boring and uninspiring nowadays, it’s also experiencing an unprecedented revival with more exciting dining venues than ever.

Canadian writer sings the praises of Cuba´s evolving culinary scene

Canadian travel journalist and editor at National Post, Nancy Truman was recently invited to Cuba by the Cuba Tourist Board to get a taste of not only the island’s most visited western destinations but to literally sample the region’s dining scene.

As she explains in her article titled "This is the Havana I’ve come to see": A trip through the culinary delights of Cuba’s capital, Truman’s main mission beyond sightseeing and taking the island’s essence in, was to discover first-hand whether Cuba’s reputation for bland food was deserved at present, a few years after the island’s private sector was given a boost and more independent economic activity was encouraged by the government. What she found was a fast-evolving dining scene with plenty to accommodate discerning international palates.

In this post, we re-trace Truman’s culinary steps in Cuba to let you in on the places she tried and tested in Havana and her final verdict on them.

The evolution of paladares

Cuba’s so-called paladares or home restaurants have evolved into something more chic, sophisticated and altogether more palatable. No longer necessarily located inside the owner or host’s home (although always found inside a sometimes-converted residential house) the newest versions of these are independent restaurants in their own right with nothing to envy bigger state-owned restaurants. There are limits on the number of tables and people they can seat, but they sure make the most of their possibilities and have driven change and innovation in the island’s culinary scene, especially in Havana.

In her article, Truman talks of her experience dining at El Del Frente (The One in Front), an independently owned restaurant in Old Havana opened in 2015 by the owners of the very successful 304 O’ Reilly, in fact it sits exactly opposite (or in front of it as its name indicates). This rather simple rooftop bar has a great selection of tapas-style bites and top-notch drinks and cocktails to match. Just check out its great reviews and ratings on TripAdvisor, where it proudly displays its “Certificate of Excellence”. Design-wise, Truman says it has a 50s feel because of its pastel-coloured metal chairs but we must add that it does literally feel like a local’s rooftop patio (well, because it is!), very casual and laidback. As she also points out, it goes highly unnoticed among non-locals. There is no sign outside pointing you to it, so most tourists that get here do so on the advice of locals. Truman raves about its Ice Baby cocktail, fish tacos, tuna tataki and mini empanadas with homemade salsa. In short, she praises the fresh menu with mainly Cuban fare.

Another paladar she was impressed by was Terraza Cuba in Santa Marta, a town in Matanzas, easily reached from the white sands of Varadero. It is very small but it excels at what it does with a gourmet menu and cosy, elegant ambience. The menu is decidedly Cuban and according to Truman, with a strong focus on taste. Everything she tasted there was a winner and she specifically mentions the bacon-wrapped tamales with pineapple glaze, a plantain tart filled with pork, cheese onion and bechamel as well as a fresh seafood platter with shrimps, snow crab and marlin. The coffee, she adds is served with “a piece of local sugar cane and a tobacco leaf in lieu of a spoon and napkin”.

State-run restaurants - not all bad, not all the same

Despite having earned a reputation for uninspiring, boring fare (these are the culprits behind Cuba’s food being branded bland for many years, especially following the shortages of the 90s “Special Period” crisis), Cuba’s government-owned and run restaurants have upped the ante in recent times to better compete with privately-owned ones.

Such is the case for one peculiar restaurant with years of popularity behind it and deservedly so. Famed for its super-tasty roasted chicken (whose recipe is said to be guarded like a state secret) El Aljibe is a ranchon-style eatery with an outdoor setting. Diners eat under the shade of a giant thatched-roof palapa, so this isn’t exactly the most intimate space in which to enjoy a quiet meal but joining in the crowds is highly recommended, not only to revel in the authentic Cuban ambience and joyful spirit (it can get loud at times, but what’s more Cuban than that?). The roast chicken is finger-licking good and is better accompanied with a serving of white rice, black beans, green salad and sweet potatoes Cuban-style. It all costs $12 CUC per person and given the portions you do get value for money. Perhaps more impressive than the chicken is El Aljibe’s extensive wine cellar, according to one of the chefs the best in Cuba, with over 1,000 international labels, including Spanish and Chilean brands.

Hotel restaurants - shaking off the bad rep one dish at a time

International hotel chains running hotels in Cuba are working harder and harder to differentiate themselves from the previously poor fare provided at state-run hotels. And it seems their tactics are indeed working as some are already enjoying success with world-class dishes fit for an international gourmet dining scene.

Such is the case of the restaurants at the exclusive Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinksi La Habana, overseen by food and beverages director Pedro Assuncao. At the rooftop San Cristobal restaurant headed by Madrid-trained executive chef Ivan Alvarez, locally-sourced ingredients are exclusively used to create experimental dishes with a unique Cuban touch. These innovative creations are made of ingredients like coffee, rum, chocolate and tobacco and aren’t on the menu. What you can order off the menu though, and which Truman enjoyed during the visit, are olive tapenades and balsamic, roasted tomato tartare with dates and lobster ceviche with chilli, lemon juice and coriander. The views, she says, are just as good as the bites with all of Kempinski’s restaurants overlooking landmarks in the old part of town.

Truman says her experiencing dining at the nearby Iberostar Parque Central was equally positive, where she enjoyed a very Cuban menu consisting of suckling pig, lobster with sweet potato and pumpkin, followed by a guava mousse dessert with coconut foam and papaya crumble. Beyond her meal, she also enjoyed the stay at the hotel’s very big and bright rooms with postcard views of the city.

Fresh produce straight from the farm

Another blossoming dining experience in Cuba, restaurants set up within farms and serving exclusively home-grown fare are rising in popularity. There aren’t many yet, but the few there are definitely worth the visit and you don’t have to head further inland into Pinar del Rio to enjoy them.

In Matanzas, Truman stopped by the Almeida farm in La Coincidencia, near Jovellanos, where she not only thoroughly enjoyed the food but also the great company. Hosts Hector Luis Correa Almeida and his wife Odalys along with his grown-up children look after their farm, which they received some 33 years ago from the government and after meeting the strict quota of selling produce through the state at established prices, were able to use the surplus in the onsite restaurant they created, serving tourists and locals. Here Truman enjoyed freshly-picked vegetables, fruits and legumes, home-raised meat and locally-sourced honey, which she was disappointed in not being able to purchase, given the limited quantity available due to the local Melipona bees producing smaller quantities and their honey being extra difficult to extract from their three-dimensional combs.

Beyond the very tasty food and the mouth-watering lean pork (slow-roasted over a low charcoal fire for three hours and spiced with garlic, pepper, ginger, cumin, turmeric and bitter orange juice) she says the best part of her visit to Almeida farm is getting to know first-hand about it and meeting its owners.

Following Hemmingway’s trail

Truman devotes the last part of her article to say where to follow in Hemingway’s in Havana food and drink-wise, mentioning the iconic El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio bars as well as the American Nobel Prize-winning author’s Cuban residence, now turned into a museum.

The only bit where I disagree with her is her questioning of the daiquiri being birthed at El Floridita, when extensive documentation exists to prove it, not only that it is widely known that it happened at the hands of original owner Ribalaigua who coined a special version of the drink, the “Papa Doble” (with less sugar, more rum) after Hemingway. Likewise, there is no doubt that the mojito was first created at La Bodeguita del Medio. The only thing in question is whether Hemingway actually penned the phrase “Mi mojito en El Floridita, mi daiquiri en el Floridita”, or whether this was a forgery and marketing ploy to add prestige to La Bodeguita. Because there is extensive evidence, including photographs, of Hemingway regularly hanging out at El Floridita, and there is not a single picture of him sitting at La Bodeguita del Medio’s bar or any witness having quoted his visit there. 


Popular Holidays in cuba

OUR EXCLUSIVE DEALS AND LATEST OFFERS

Best Value

From £619 per person
villa pinares de mayari

Villa Pinares De Mayari

4.0 stars

Beautifully perched on the panoramic Mensura Hill, surrounded by striking greenery, this blessed and secluded natural...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £639 per person
villa mirador de mayabe

Villa Mirador De Mayabe

2.0 stars

This enchanting villa hotel is surrounded by exuberant tropical plants and is perfectly located in a high point towering...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £679 per person
sercotel club cayo guillermo

Sercotel Club Cayo Guillermo

3.0 stars

The perfect haven for lovers of nature in its purest state, the Villa Cojimar hotel sits in an idyllic location amidst...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £699 per person
fiesta americana holguin costa verde

Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde

4.0 stars

Come and experience the essence of Cuba at the majestic fiesta americana holguin costa verde, an all-inclusive paradise...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £699 per person
club amigo atlantico guardalavaca

Club Amigo Atlantico Guardalavaca

3.0 stars

Get away to one of Cuba's best kept secrets for a dream holiday at Club Amigo Atlantico. Guardalavaca is known to host...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation
From £719 per person
tryp cayo coco

Tryp Cayo Coco

4.0 stars

The perfect beach holiday awaits you the all-inclusive Tryp Cayo Coco hotel, where non-stop entertainment and utmost...

Included
  • Flight
  • Accomodation
  • Transportation
  • Representation

More deals


Explore cuba your way

Tailor made cuba holidays

For those who prefer to travel at their own pace or to explore places not included in the brochure itineraries, we have years of experience at organising tailor-made holidays.

Create the perfect trip with the help of our specialists

Our expert tour consultants will be pleased to suggest ideas to complement your own and to organise the most appropiate programme to suit your interests, time and budget.

Call 0207 644 1600
to speak with our award-winning travel consultants.

If you would like a member of our team to contact you back, please click here Contact us