Cuba's first Soviet-inspired restaurant opens in Havana
Last Friday, a novelty restaurant opened in downtown Havana, the first ever privately owned Russian restaurant in the island to evoke the Soviet era; where all cooks are Soviet-born and all waiters speak Russian. A revolutionary, nostalgia-laden eatery with authentic Russian flavours, right at the heart of the city.
A privately owned little eatery has just opened in downtown Havana, on the third floor of a block of residential buildings in Vedado, boasting panoramic views over the iconic Malecon seawall.
Nazdarovie is one of the city's newest restaurants and a first of its kind, bringing back to life a not-yet-forgotten era that was part of Cubans' daily lives for more than three decades.
This is one place in Havana where you won't find any black beans and rice or fried plantains on the menu and where you can still order a mojito but it will be made with vodka instead of the traditional white rum.
Giving the restaurant a distinctive touch of authenticity, all the waiters at Nazdarovie speak Russian and clients are expected to order their dishes in Russian if they are to be served. But, not to worry, the menu is fully translated and even includes pronunciation instructions to help you along in the ordering process.
For a true Soviet flavour, guests can expect to tuck into dishes such as solyanka (a meaty Russian soup classic), the ever-popular pelmeni (meat dumplings served with sour cream and dill) golubtsy (stuffed cabbage rolls slow-cooked in tomato sauce) and a quirky variant of Stroganoff – made with pork instead of beef, as it is a scarce food item in the island. To sweeten your tooth after a hearty Russian fare, a sweet version of the popular blinis, called "blinchiki" in Russian, are served.
This innovative restaurant evoking the Soviet era on the island, brings these two cultures closer, as they once were not too long ago, before the Perestroika years arrived.
The food is lovingly prepared by the hands of Russian-born "babushkas" who have made Cuba their home for years and whom, in most cases, have never been back to their birthplace, which adds even more to the element of nostalgia.
During the mass exodus of Cuban students to Russia, many of these women fell in love with Cuban men, whom, after completing their university degree, headed back to the island and brought their Russian partners along. In the majority of cases, it was Soviet women who married Cuban university students and then moved to the Caribbean nation, never looking back.
Such is the case of one of the restaurant's cooks, Irina Butorina, 56, who met her Cuban husband at university in her native Kyrgz Soviet Socialist Republic, now Kyrgyzstan, and who moved to the island in 1984. She speaks with nostalgia about her mother's recipes. She explained:
"At first I used to cook a lot of Russian food here, but then a lot of things disappeared from the market – cabbage, for example... so then I make Cuban food. But these people here have started this restaurant. It was their dream... and our dreamas well."
This restaurant was put in motion by Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian-born entrepreneur of Ukrainnian descent who has been living in the island for the past two decades and who dreamed up the concept of Nazdarovie. The project was developed and launched by him and three Cuban partners.
The restaurant is a nod to nostalgia for the strong socio-economic ties between the Soviet Union and Cuba during the Cold War and beyond; a time when Havana's main source of trade and economic aid depended on Moscow and a time when hundreds of thousands of Cubans travelled to the Soviet bloc to study, or as artists or diplomats.
Speaking about the Cubans who long lived in Russia and then returned to the island, 45-year-old, Gregory Biniowsky recalls:
"For most of them it was the first time they ever left this island. They have nostalgia about their time there, about the flavours they experienced for the first time."
A homage to the old country, the walls are filled with retro Soviet propaganda, Russian matryoshkas can be found behind the bar, as can a bust of Lenin standing right next to pricy bottles of premium vodka. There's little here to remind you that you actually are in a tropical island, were it not for the sweeping views over the Caribbean Sea and Havana's skyline that can be admired from this place.
"The idea with Nazdarovie is really to celebrate a unique social and cultural link that existed and to a certain degree still exists today between Cuba of 2014 and what was once the Soviet Union."
Ultimately, what the owners of this new restaurant hope with the opening of this restaurant, beyond attracting diners of course, is to transcend politics and build a community of expats and those with a Soviet past. Instead of the possible animosities between the different nationalities that were once part of this now vanished vast nation estate, they want to create the perfect harmony between people of Russian and Ukrainian descent, have them cooking and eating side by side, united by shared memories that long prevailed, forgoing the current division and tempestuous state of political affairs.
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