When we booked a cruise a year ago that would include a couple of nights in Havana, my first thought was that it would give me an opportunity to see the paladares.
My husband’s first thought was it would give him a chance to see the famed El Floridita.
The paladares are privately-owned restaurants that in the last half dozen years have begun to transform Cuba’s dreary dining scene. Often located in a converted section of a family home, these independent restaurants serve fresh food at moderate prices with good service – a combination that did not exist during Fidel Castro’s long reign.
El Floridita, on the other hand, is the legendary Havana bar and seafood restaurant that preceded Fidel (and Teddy Roosevelt, for that matter), and just celebrated its 200th anniversary!! More to the point, it is where one of my husband’s literary idols, Ernest Hemingway, dropped by daily in the 1930s to drink frozen daiquiris (which were invented by a bartender there).
On a visit last week, we got to achieve both objectives.
We arrived at El Floridita, I’m happy to report, considerably later than the 10 o’clock morning hour when Hemingway generally started on his daily tipple (he is reputed to one day have consumed 16 frozen daiquiris).
The drinks at this bar, where memorabilia and photos cover the walls, are indeed superb, and to this day, a life-size bronze statue of Hemingway occupies his customary spot at the bar. We also could not resist trying what were said to be some of his favorite dishes in the rear dining room, which has the ambiance of a good spot for a meeting of Mafia dons.
My husband ordered the Gran Plato Hemingway – alleged to be “his” special dish, featuring lobster, shrimp and fish, all in a garlic sauce – and I opted for the Fisherman’s Casserole, consisting of sautéed fish, octopus, shrimps and lobster in a creamy sauce of tomatoes and spices.
The dishes were not bad, but have I mentioned the frozen daiquiris?
Then for a paladar on this short stay in Havana, we decided to visit a place, San Cristobal, that also has hosted some famous names (though none the equal, my husband would contend, of those who have patronized El Floridita).
San Cristobal is the paladar that President Obama dined at on his historic trip to Havana in March 2016, and the walls of this eclectic restaurant are covered with photos of the Obamas, various pop-culture celebrities, assorted memorabilia, and a couple of hundred antique and grandfather clocks.
The clocks were quite amazing.
Both El Floridita and San Cristobal were packed when we visited. While we shoe-horned our way into El Floridita, we had a half-hour wait for a table at San Cristobal even though we had reservations.
Our excellent server pointed out that even though Barack and Michelle Obama both had “solomillo a la plancha” (steak on the grill), San Cristobal – like many new Havana restaurants – features fresh seafood. Hence, I ordered the Camarones al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic) and my husband had the Gran Plato del Mar (lobster, fish, prawns, and creamed potato).
The shrimp were perfectly cooked in a buttery garlic sauce. A simple but very tasty dish. My husband particularly enjoyed the Caribbean lobster and the pan-sautéed snapper.
While it would be absurd to generalize from such a small sample, Havana would seem to still have some way to go to become a serious foodie destination. But as more visitors make their way to this island, the dining scene no doubt will just keep getting better and better.
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