Friday, November 20, 2015

Beans, rice, classic cars and some very good food

Cuba: Beans, rice, classic cars and some very good food
By Michael Bauer on November 20, 2015 at 4:33 AM

In Cuba some of the best restaurants are in people's homes such as
Paladar Sol Ananda in Trinidad.
"You're going to get really tired of beans and rice, and the food is
really bland,'' is a statement I heard repeatedly from friends who'd
been to Cuba.

I was there last week and part of it was true – I did have beans and
rice at just about every meal – but the food was "bland" only if you
compare it to the chile-infused specialties of Mexico and other Latin
countries, and surprisingly I didn't grow tired of it.

Instead I found a lot of creativity on some plates, but the chefs are
forced to paint with a limited palette of flavors. For a tropical
country I was surprised there wasn't a wider variety of vegetables and
much of the fruit, such as watermelon, was wane.

However I wasn't in Cuba as a restaurant critic and this was not a food
trip, though my tour group made an effort to take us to the best
restaurants they could find. Instead I was on a people-to-people
cultural gathering where we talked to an economist, met with artists in
their studio, visited rural medical facilities, and met with leaders of
the organic food movement who are trying to increase the production and
consumption of vegetables in the country.

What I did find true was the constant parade of American cars from the
late 40s to the late 50s everyone talks about; but you really have to
see it to believe it. There's also a constant flood of music coming out
of just about every door way, and just about everywhere you look there's
art. Even the maid at our hotel wrote a thank you note by cutting thin
cardboard in the shape of a butterfly.

With the increase in tourism there is also a parallel increase in
private restaurants that have begun to repair the damaged reputation of
Cuban food perpetuated by state-run restaurants. On this trip we went to
a few of those state-run restaurants, and even without knowing it they
were easily identifiable because of the sameness and the lack of care
taken in the preparation. Many of the best restaurants, called paladars,
are in people's homes.

Ivan Justo, who I was told is the first chef to own a private restaurant
that is 100% Cuban-controlled, was a highlight, dining upstairs in a
room filled with Hollywood memorabilia. When we were picked up in a
taxi after dining there, the driver volunteered that Justo was the best
chef in Cuba. From my limited experience I would probably agree. On
another night I went to his second restaurant, Al Carbon, where I had
beef liver skewered with rosemary branches, the only time I remember
having this herb during my eight-day stay. It was also on a bed of
frilly leaf lettuce, which is another rarity. The most spectacular item
was the whole roasted suckling pig leg, encased in a crackling skin with
a sharp knife and fork impaled in the center. It was on a bed of grilled
eggplant, onions and zucchini.

We also went to a fusion restaurant in Havana, Casa Migas, where
a Swedish chef blends the flavor of his homeland with his adopted home.
One of the courses was a kind of goulash of shredded pork that had a
similar consistency and flavor of chili.

The talent in the kitchen was clear, although it's hard to break out
with such a limited larder. About the only vegetables we saw
consistently were corn, squash and starchy root vegetables such as
yucca. Some dishes had tomatoes, but in most cases, they were green or
barely pink.

Still I had lots of good meals, just about all of them built around the
rice and beans, pork or chicken. Surprisingly even though Cuba is
surrounded by an ocean, fish wasn't offered much of the time. But when
it was, it was generally my favorite dish. I was told that local
fishermen are not allowed to own fishing boats so much of the catch
comes from what they can get from fishing from land or in interior lakes.

Our first lunch was at Paladar Las 3 Monedas, which was close to the
Plaza de la Catedral in a building that looked like it was covered in
the century of soot. A climb up the steep stairs revealed a charming
restaurant with booths upholstered in what look like 50s car seats, and
photos of American icons from the 50s including Elizabeth Taylor and
Audrey Hepburn. I don't think I went a day without seeing photos of
Marilyn Monroe.

One of my best dinners was in Trinidad at Paladar Davimart where we had
a mixed grill of bass, shrimp and lobster tail, cooked in front of us in
a home like kitchen. However the most memorable dinner was at Paladar
Casa Museo, also in Trinidad. The food was good but it was the
surroundings that will be forever pressed in my memory. The owners
inherited a house full of European furniture and china shipped from
Spain in the 1890s. Each table was lavishly decked out with crisply
starched napkins, matching china and at least eight glasses and as many
utensils. It was like a scene out of Downton Abbey.

It stood in strong contrast to many of the more modest restaurants that
surrounded it. But now that I look back on the last week, I shouldn't
have been surprised because Cuba is a country filled with these dramatic

Source: Cuba: Beans, rice, classic cars and some very good food - Inside
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