Cuba's poor reputation for food is now a thing of the past. Paladares, a concept unique to Cuba, have come to the rescue. Visitors can now sample culinary delights of quality and variety when they visit these homely restaurants.
Paladares, which are generally family-run restaurants in people's homes, started legally in the post – Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s. Sadly this economic crisis and the crippling trade embargo resulted in rationing, food shortages and poverty for an already impoverished Cuban society.
This crisis pushed the government to issue restricted licences for self and family employment, and so some private businesses took root. These family restaurants had always been a part of Cuban culture and were the only places to find a decent meal, but until the 1990s they were illegal.
The legalisation of Paladares in the 1990s coincided with the showing of a Brazilian soap opera in Cuba – Vale Tudo. The protagonist Rachel Accioli, played by Regina Duarte, started a restaurant in her home town, which became so successful that a chain of restaurants developed called Paladar, which translated from Portuguese and Spanish, means 'palate'.
This tale of 'rags to riches' incentivised the newly licensed Cubans. The name Paladar became synonymous with the family run restaurants. The government forced restrictions, regarding the type of food prepared, the staff employed and the number of seats they could offer. They were rigorously inspected and as a result, during these early days, many of the Paladares failed. I am however, delighted to say that one of my favourite Paladares, La Guarida, has not only survived but has a reputation of being one of Havana's best.
During my first visit to Cuba, in the 90s, I was taken to a Paladar in Havana and another in Trinidad, where I was served delicious homemade cooking, not perhaps haute cuisine, but dishes lovingly prepared by mum or dad and served by the family. What a difference from the expensive state-run restaurants I had visited, where on one occasion, when I asked for bread, I was informed it hadn't been delivered that day. There was very little on the menu and the warmth and intimacy of being in a Cuban home was sadly missing.
Since the recent changes in legislation in Cuba, and the increase in the number of Paladares, visitors can choose from a range of Paladares to enjoy creative Cuban cuisine and fine wines. Even the state-run restaurants have improved, as the blossoming of Paladares has resulted in increased competition.
Look below to see a selection of my favourite Paladares in Havana, and what's soon to be heading your way in my future blog:
Here is where the classic and Oscar nominated film "Fresa y Chocolate" (strawberry and chocolate)was filmed and this has no doubt added to its reputation as one of Havana's best. The food in this restaurant is on par with some of the best restaurants in London. The ambiance is great and the service excellent. It lives up to its reputation of being one of Havana's best. It is an experience in itself to visit this part of the city and to climb the dramatic staircase to the restaurant which is laid out over several rooms. It can only be described as an oasis of culinary delights, set in a building that typifies so many of the dilapidated properties in Havana.
On a recent visit, our small group sampled a mix of fish and meat; we were all delighted with the portions, taste and presentation of the food. We sampled such dishes as aubergine caviar, snapper in carrot and coconut reduction, sea bass and grouper. The lemon tart was delicious and the chocolate tart, which was recommended, was also excellent.
This an exceptional paladar in a beautiful villa, with seating in a lush tropical garden, in a residential area of the city. Guests can expect the highest quality in terms of service, the range of dishes on the menu and the wine list. We enjoyed live music, played by a gifted guitarist. I had the most amazing tomato soup, followed by a delicious fish, with a tiny live goldfish swimming in a little bowl of water on the same plate. This was followed by a mouth watering desert. My companion selected the shredded lamb which she claimed to be as good as any she had tasted. The food is freshly cooked with care and attention to detail. The whole experience was very enjoyable and one I would certainly wish to repeat.
This paladar reopened after a full refurbishment. The impressive decor is fresh, clean and tasteful with tables arranged in separate rooms in the house and original artwork on the walls. The cuisine is French inspired and tasted delicious as did the wine. The menu was varied and the squid starter, melted in the mouth. Apparently the chef, Hector is well known and has his own following in Havana, and now across the world. The lamb and tomato main course was very tender, and we all shared a beautiful chocolate tart. The chicken and chocolate starter was "different"!
The Atelier is a contemporary space in a Havana mansion, with a large main room and two balconies with lots of cushions. Atelier is the inspiration of Niuris Higueras, who just happens to be the sister of Hector of the Chansonnier. Niuris has long nurtured her passion for exciting food: the menu changes every day. Enrique is the experienced chef and together they create an eclectic range of dishes, including falafels, pato confitado (duck confit), lomito de res con camarones y espuma de apio al olivo (sirloin steak with shrimp and celery mousse), conejo al vino (rabbit in wine) to cerdo asado (roast pork). Desserts are standard (flan, tarts, ice cream) but good. The food is consistently excellent, as is the service. Choose to sit on the terrace if the weather is good.
Foodies, don't be put off visiting Cuba. Next time you 're there and are looking for a decent meal, head for a Paladar and experience these little gems for yourself.