On my first trip to Cuba, it was possible to dine in the local paladares. These are small restaurants of up to eight tables run in private homes. Paladares were one of Castro’s more successful economic reforms. The rules required them to be family run and to cook only Cuban food, with lobster and chicken breast being strictly reserved for tourist hotels. I enjoyed several reasonable meals at these domestic establishments.
Yet when I returned to Havana three years later, the paladares were apparently temporarily repressed. On this trip, I stayed in several grand hotels, the Inglaterra (where Graham Greene sojourned), Hotel Ambos Mundos (which Hemmingway made his home for five years) and the spectacular colonial style Hotel Nacionale (where Sinatra and his ‘friends’ stayed). After this, the third attempt at find a hotel with a working credit card machine, I gave up hotel hopping. For besides their history of illustrious residents, they were all equal in one thing – having the most awful food. Munchkin, my fellow traveller, preferred mint toothpaste on organic moisturiser.
Nearly inedible, the kitchens were at best jejune. Confectioneries and pastries were bizarrely served with bottles of HP- Worcester- and Steak sauce. Coleslaw of shredded cabbage was the only salad ever available. Even tea was distempered with metallic tasting water. The breakfast buffet at one hotel served grapefruit and plain spaghetti lubricated with ketchup.
The most acceptable food was in Havana’s one-street Chinatown. Elsewhere, the best option was the reasonably reliable, but rather bland ‘pollo’ (chicken) served at restaurants in the colonial district; that is if the pullets pecking around your feet did not put you off eating their mother.
I’m sure it once existed beyond the banana, but today Cuban cuisine is a myth, at least in its native land. Sauté and ‘sofrito’, a widely used paste of green pepper, onion, garlic, origanum or cilantro and bay leaf, don’t make a national cuisine. Their gastronomy is simply a hotchpotch of other cuisines – Spanish, African, fisherman – using whatever ingredients the island’s encumbered agriculture, food aid parcels and long suffering locals happen to have to hand. If you exclude cookery, Cuba is otherwise a civilised culture. Read the exhaustive Wikipedia entry (as at 1/12/2008) and view the photograph of shredded flank if you need convincing.
So what is to be made of restaurants elsewhere in the world that claim to be Cuban? The short answer is cocktails and decor. You may skip the food.
The newish Cape to Cuba in Long Street is anything but a paladar. The decor is sumptuous. It’s more Cuban than Cuba. Gorgeous, wooden religious figurines (many are refugees), black glass chandeliers, fake palms (and some real), café chairs and ornate carvers, a marble and plaster bar, a checked tile floor with fans whirring above, and art nouveau lamps, all compete for the eye.
For starters, I recommend the mojito (R30). Delicious, though there was evidence of lemons and not exclusively limes, and somewhat shy on the mint and on rum, compared to Havana, where the unit of measure is in fingers (two or three sir?) poured by thick fingered barmen.
For mains the wine list is rather dull. Mostly corporate blends – Zevenwacht dry white (the house wine at R16 a glass), Nederburg, Fleur du cap, Boland and of course (and rather good) Havana Hills.
For dessert go to the cigar lounge upstairs; it’s by far the most attractive bar in the city. On Friday nights they have Latin bands.
If you insist on eating, I can’t recommend much. The chilli poppers (R10 each), green jalapeno stuffed with cheese in beer batter, make a good bar snack. Or you could start with their trio of soups (R36) served in three pousse café glasses, that contain: coldcrab and coconut soup – a bit like sandwich spread, similarly best coaxed out of its glass with a knife; cold peppadew (which one should note is a South African genetic success story) soup – a bit like spicy, salad dressing; and hot chicken and lime soup, rather sauce-like.
Their ‘sardine trinidad’ (R38) consists of two sardines covered in a tomato and onion salsa with a lot of lettuce and little thought to constructing a dish.
The menu has no less than ten salads, unlike anything in Cuba, but as incognizant, they add capers and bacon to the Cesar.
Paella (R105) served in a black pan should be a signature dish, but the turmeric is too dominant; it’s too sweet; there are too many sultanas; it is far too oily; the crab sticks are infra dig; the fish is only good for pickling, but I did enjoy the calamari buried in it.
I still recommend going there for the vibe – to Cuba and Long Street. Perhaps given time and enough complaints they’ll get it right, though their sister restaurant in Kalk Bay never has improved and it has survived for years. Much like Cuba really. Otherwise, just take your toothpaste.
Cape to Cuba, 277 Long Street, Cape Town. Open Tel: 021 424 2330.