Although I’m a huge fan of the Cuban food I’ve had in the US, I knew from my pre-trip reading not to expect much from the food in Cuba. Things have improved a lot since the days of dramatic food shortages right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but many of the spices and oils that make Cuban-American food so delicious aren’t readily available in Cuba. Bland is pretty much the name of the game when it comes to food here, and between that and the lack of choice that comes with being on a group tour, it’s an understatement to say that most of my meals in Havana left something to be desired. I did, however, have two standout dining experiences, and together they represent both the traditional and the changing Cuba: El Aljibe, one of the most well-known state-run restaurants in Cuba, and Atelier, one of Havana’s top paladares, private restaurants in family homes that are allowed under Raul Castro’s recent economic reforms.
From the moment I saw this restaurant on our itinerary, I was eagerly anticipating this meal. Our actual itinerary in Cuba bore so little resemblance to our printed schedule that I feared we wouldn’t make it here (to the point that I deliberately didn’t photograph the restaurant’s sign until after we’d eaten, for fear of jinxing the whole thing), but fortunately we did and it turned out to be my favorite meal in Havana. El Aljibe – which made an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations – is famous for its roast chicken served with a special sauce, the secret recipe for which has been handed down through several generations. It’s described as a “bitter orange” sauce, but to me it tasted more like a garlic sauce with fairly mild hints of citrus. It paired wonderfully with the perfectly roasted chicken, which was so tender it practically fell off the bone. Sides of rice and black beans and roasted yucca rounded out the delicious family-style meal.
(Apologies for this terrible photo: after a few days of having to choose between pork, which I don’t eat, and an absolutely pathetic “vegetarian option” – think a couple slices of cucumber on stale bread – I was so excited to see some poultry that I apparently couldn’t wait to capture a decent photo before diving in.)
One of the top-rated paladares in Havana, Atelier is all charm, from the beautiful china used in the place settings to the hand-written menu.
True to the name, the food mixes Cuban and French influences, with some other flavors in there as well, and it lives up to the lovely ambiance. The Dutch-style steak I had was wonderfully flavorful and perfectly tender, unlike a lot of the beef I had in Havana.
You can’t come to Havana and not dine at a paladar (even group tours with pre-scheduled meals typically give you at least one free night on your own for just this purpose), and Atelier is a great choice.