¡Viva Cuba! Mojitos, Cigars and smiles – Cuba Part I

Yes, this is a food blog but traveling is my biggest passion and having just returned from 8 days in Cuba, I can’t avoid sharing some of my views on our experience in that gorgeous island. It does include food, of course, and rum. I have drunk more of the golden nectar last week than in my entire life! And I even got to smoke a cigar like a pro, under Hemingway (well, his ghost maybe) watchful eyes.
 
Food was also part of the overall merriment and, having prepared ourselves for the worst, we were actually surprised to find nothing very bad or right awful. Mostly we had decent meals, with some nice highlights. For example, while breakfasts have been pretty dull affairs everywhere we went (from casa particular to 5* hotels), lunches and dinners  offered some interesting flavours. Matched with an ice cold mojito, everything tastes better!

Traffico

In Havana we spent three nights, which was not nearly enough. It is easily one of my favourite cities in the world.. decadent, derelict, crumbling yet stylish, elegant, full of life and bursting with colours everywhere. We absolutely loved walking around Habana Vieja, venturing into some of the side streets to discover battered chevvies, kids playing baseball and old ladies selling fresh fruit.The outer area, such as residential Vedado, are full of beautiful mansions in colonial style or houses in art deco architecture. Every where you look, there is something to catch your eye. Havana is a visual feast!

BodeguitaAs soon as we arrived, tired from a long delayed flight, we went out and headed straight for the Bodeguita del Medio, a super famous, super touristy haunt which has not lost any of its character. I did not remember where, 20 years ago, I signed my name next to my family’s so we settled in the downstairs dining room for our first taste of Cuban cocina. 
My Tasajo Como had a nice, tangy tomato sauce and was full of peppers, but the meat alas, was a leather sole pulled apart. @bmcboy’s Pollo Cacerola was much better, and the sides were ok. Our last Cuban meal was also enjoyed here, strangely at the very same table and was a lot more enjoyable too. I had the classic Ropa Vieja and this was possibly the nicest version I had during our whole visit. 

For our second dinner in Havana we chose a paladar. There are so many that was difficult to make a choice and this was primarily based on location (and reviews of course).

Starters
Starters at Dona Eutimia

Dona Eutimia is located right in the very heart of Habana Vieja behind the Cathedral square. While its next door neighbour languishes empty despite the jineteros pulling its strings in the square, Dona Eutimia enjoys a full house, and a constant stream of punters who queue outside, mojito in hand, to get a table. 

Sign

A good mix of tourists and locals, the food was very plesant. I did find the starters too greasy for my taste (but @bmcboy liked them), while our mains were very good, a good combination of flavours and texture. We concluded with a light based, intense dark chocolate cake. The service was great too – the difference between privately owned establishments and government ones is staggering. I also loved the crockery (from a local, artists’ shop) and the paper ‘vintage looking’ menus. 



Our other Havana night meal was spent at yet another very famous paladar, la Cocina de Lilliam,  recommended also by London Foodie. 

Ropa vieja
Ropa Vieja – Cocina de Lilliam

I was in two minds as it is located a bit far in residential and green area of Miramar, around 20 minutes away in a squeaky 1948 Cadillac (25CUC there and back, with waiting time). 
I must admit, it is a world apart from Dona Eutimia. A pretty house with a large garden area, yet this place reminded me more of one of those touristy roadside motel than anything else. 
Full, but full only of tourists, with plastic A3 menus, this was a disappointment. 

The food was good, but yet in our opinion, not worth the trip. The atmosphere was non existent while the prices were pretty high too for fairly small portions. We could not wait to get back to the rusty dusty old Havana for a mojito (what else) and a Romeo y Julieta at B del M. 
 

Lunches were spent where we found ourselves hungry. A long wait at Jardin del Oriente for a couple of decent and very cheap sandwiches (and the place is full of locals too), and a good meal ata place on Mercadares whose name escapes me but it’s right when the churros trolley parks. My fish starer was great, with marinated white fish and a gently vinegared salad. Service was surprisingly decent, the venue is beautiful with modern furniture and old style print machinery all around and there was a fantastic live band who even sang a Neapolitan classic. I felt at home (and bought their CD).   
Lunch before the stone

It was going swimmingly until @bmcboy chewed on a stone in his skewers and broke his tooth in half, which saw us rush to the hospital (but this is another story…) Shame, as otherwise I would have said this had been my favourite Havana restaurant. 

Outside Havana, there is not as much choice. In Vinales, we had a couple of very basic and forgettable (but yet edible) lunches, including one at restaurant owned El Patio del Decimista (where my omelette was actually better than Dishoom’s). 

Our local dinner was enjoyed at our casa particular, where our wonderful host, Lumino, cooked us a typical Vinales dish, Smoked roast pork with plenty of side dishes, a black bean soup and some yucca, my special request. Large amount of food and a Cuban grand mother to watch over us, couldn’t be better. The fried yucca she furnished me with following day when we left, was the best thing ever. 

 

Tasajo at B del M

During our stay at beach resort Cayo Levisa, we had only hotel food – while we had read it was going to be terrible, it actually wasn’t. They even made a Parmigiana di Melanzane style bake which was better than some bland versions I have had in London, and they had a grill which dished out fresh fish and lobsters. I guiltily indulged in one of those which was of course fantastic, and very fresh (at 17CUC extra, was worth it).

So all in all, the food was much better than I expected – I did not lose any weight (as I was hoping) and I enjoyed some fantastic drinks. To top it all off, we managed to spend some left over CUCs at the airport on some rich chocolates – it’s right in the main gates’ area so save some money to buy a bunch, it’s really worth it.

But what about Cuba itself? 

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