Monday, November 7, 2011

Food Field Trip Havana: Time Travel

Without question, Cuba is one of the most challenging international destinations to (legally) visit for a US citizen. Though the country possesses a rich and unique culinary tradition, the embargo has taken its toll on the country's cuisine and for the first time in a long time, I did not mind the fact that Cuba was not going to be a foodie destination. The country is still is so sensory, that the constant, pulsing stimuli you are surrounded by negated my urge for food finds. Plus, how do you critique a country that does so well with what they have, but lacks the resources of the rest of the world?!

Cuba lies a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida, but amid the political environment it might as well be a world away. The government- imposed (on both sides) strained separation is immediately palpable. Upon landing in Havana or Miami, charter flight passengers erupt in applause--a unique occurrence on a 45 minute, incident-free journey. Such constant energy and tension fueled our Cuban experience.

Havana is like nowhere else. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful city, which is simultaneously resplendent and crumbling. The people are proud of their land and culture, and it is this pride that pulses through the streets and drives the city. From the once traditionally stunning, now deteriorating, yet still beautiful (within-the-state-of-decay) buildings to the 60,000 or so restored (to varying degrees of success) classic cars, Havana is perhaps the only place on earth where you can time travel. The city is more or less the same as it was in 1959, but the culture has not stagnated; if anything, based on the people-to-people journey that we experienced with the Harvard Alumni Association and Distant Horizons, Havana’s art's scene is vibrant, even thriving in what can only be described as a very constrained environment.

Before I talk about the unique and surreal dining B and I enjoyed in Havana, I need to qualify our experience. There is a dual economy in Cuba: one for locals and another for international tourists. 25 Pesos (the local currency) is more or less equal to 1 US dollar converted into a CUC (the tourist currency). So it is hard to praise either the government-run or paladares (privately owned) restaurants that we visited since such meals are out of reach to the vast majority of Cubans. Food is at a premium. Despite Cuba’s lush landscape, agriculture is limited and the land is severely underutilized, meaning that Cuba relies heavily on imported food, much of which is imported from the US (quietly exempt from the embargo [US speak] or blockade [Cuban speak]). It is within this dichotomy that I talk about our experience.

As Anthony Bordain noted on his "No Reservations" visit, Cubans make decent beer and fabulous rum. Alcohol was very much a part of this journey, from the requisite welcome mojito at most paladares to drinking like Hemingway at La Floridita to the downright practical reality of downing a beer to bolster one's intake of calories and carbohydrates. While I have had my fill of mojitos for perhaps a lifetime, I was quite impressed with the full-bodied Bucanero beer and B gained an appreciation for the 7 year-aged Havana Club as an apertif.

The meals varied wildly in terms of quality and flavor, but on the whole service was nostalgically formal and beyond gracious.  With the exception of a succulent roast pork at the Hotel Nacional, the paladares, small private restaurants run out of people's homes, offered more creative and robust dishes than hotel and government-owned restaurants.
Our trip to Vistamar, a paladar in the once-ritzy Miramar section of the city was simultaneously enchanting and haunting.  From our perch on the balcony of this ocean front home, we could see what was once a magnificent block of late 50s-era homes complete with seaside swimming pools, but is now an eerie spread of empty, faded aquamarine pits.  While the variety was limited, the seafood here was local and fresh.  The butter poached Caribbean lobster was an incredibly flavorful feast at less than $20 a person. 

We also had the opportunity to dine at La Guarida, Cuba's most storied paladar. The food here was world-class, and the setting other-worldly  La Guarida is located on the top floor of a decaying (but like most of Havana) once grandiose apartment building.  You climb three flights of crumbling stairs before entering a candlelit wonderland with whimsical, off-beat decor (a chair was suspended mid-wall and Jesus and John the Baptist statues graced the hallway to the bathroom).  The environment and food at La Guarida was unlike most other places in Cuba, with not only air conditioning but complex flavors and a relative variety of ingredients.  The standout was my meaty grouper filet in a garlic sauce.

One of my favorite food travel moments of my 32 years was lunch at the home of artist Jose Fuster.  Fuster is sometimes referred to as the Cuban Picasso, whose vibrant media spans painting, ceramics, and sculpture.  Fuster  has taken his talents quite literally to the streets and has brightened up his entire neighborhood with vibrant mosaics.  Our glimpse into FusterWorld was accompanied by a menu of spicy lobster, fried fish, and beans and rice.  The meal was very good in and of itself, but dining at the epicenter of his magical, surrealist version of Cuba was the real treat.

B and I were the youngest (in some cases by a half century or so) travelers on this Harvard Alumni Association trip.  Our group meal times allowed us a forum to distill and challenge one another’s notions of what we were experiencing. In spite of the "just OK" quality of the food at most dinners, the conversation was always flowing as heavily as the rum. And while I may not embark on group travel again anytime soon, this simultaneously fascinating and frustrating experience opened my eyes to Cuba and I am still (and likely will be for some time) processing this wrinkle in time!


  1. Enjoyed reading your blog on Havana.

    "Havana is like nowhere else. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful city, which is simultaneously resplendent and crumbling."-I think this paragraph perfectly reflects my impression of this city--and I always tried to see its grandiose past.

  2. Beautiful photographs! A once-in-a-lifetime journey!