2008-04-06 03:06:51 -
HAVANA (AP) - Diners trek up a curving staircase of white cracked
marble, past a decapitated statue of a robed woman, and along a broad
landing crisscrossed with lines of drying laundry to reach the weathered
wooden door opening into one of the most memorable dining experiences in
Inside is La Guarida, Havana's best
known paladar, or private restaurant, and its exquisite Nuevo Latino
offerings available nowhere else in the city. There's a tuna steak
grilled with sugar cane, a grouper fillet cooked with orange sauce,
rabbit lasagna, pork medallions with a mango glaze, and spinach crepes
stuffed with chicken and drowned in a creamy mushroom sauce.
Three rooms on the third floor of a weathered mansion in rundown Centro
Habana, the apartment was the setting for «Fresa y Chocolate»
(``Strawberry and Chocolate»), a 1994 Cuban film about a friendship that
blossoms between two men _ one gay and one straight _ despite their
different lifestyles and politics. In the movie, the older gay man Diego
refers to his apartment as «la guarida,» or «the den.
«I especially like La Guarida,» says Beverly Cox, an American cookbook
author who traveled to Havana twice in recent years to visit the
paladars and other Havana eateries for her luscious cookbook, «Eating
Cuban.» «When you ring that bell, you step into another world.
Hundreds of the private home restaurants opened up after they were
legalized by Fidel Castro's government in the mid 1990s amid severe
economic crisis. Significantly fewer have survived the strict rules they
operate under now, including high taxes and a prohibition on beef and
premium seafood such as lobster and shrimp, which are reserved for
export and state-run restaurants catering to foreigners.
But with new President Raul Castro lifting consumer and economic
restrictions in recent weeks, rumors are rampant that he will soon allow
more Cubans to become self-employed and operate private businesses.
«The tourist industry needs better services. The paladars are almost
gone. The government shut them down,» said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Cuba
economics expert and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.
«What Cuban economists and I are expecting is that there will be some
return to the situation before 2003,» when Fidel clamped down on
Government inspectors currently check the paladars occasionally to
ensure that the owner's license is current, that they are paying their
taxes, and they are not violating any health codes or other regulations.
Paladar employees are required to be family members.
The restrictions on certain foods, along with regular shortages of other
ones, often force paladar chefs into minimalist rethinking of their
menu. If there is no cream for the pumpkin soup, they'll create a less
rich version with milk. If there is no spinach for the salad, they'll
substitute Swiss chard.
Run inside the homes of their owners, paladars typically serve filleted
fish, pork or chicken, and occasionally sheep and rabbit, with most
entrees costing US$12 (¤8) to US$15 (¤10). With drinks and sides, a meal
for two runs about US$60 (¤38).
La Guarida's owner, the 39-year-old Enrique Nunez del Valle, estimates
there are about 80 paladars of varying quality and type still operating
Nunez and his wife, Odeysis, sat one recent afternoon at a table
surrounding by the old movie posters, timeworn candelabras and the other
shabby bohemian items she collected to decorate the premises.
Nunez grew up in the large apartment in a crowded, economically
depressed neighborhood of once-fashionable homes now stripped of paint
and crumbling from decades of disrepair.
In 1993, at the height of the economic crisis caused by the Soviet
Union's collapse, Cuba's cinema institute asked to rent the Nunez family
apartment as the setting for the movie. The institute didn't offer much
_ 40 pesos a day, or about US$4 (¤3) at the time. But the deal came with
free breakfast, lunch and dinner daily during a time of severe shortages.
After the film was released, foreigners occasionally found their way to
the Nunez apartment and asked to look inside. Some suggested he open a
private restaurant there under a new government initiative to create new
kinds of income during financial hardship.
Nunez got a license and opened the restaurant in 1996. But popularity
«We spent afternoons playing dominoes on the balcony for months, waiting
for people to come,» Nunez recalled. But when he hosted an exhibit by
Cuban photographer Korda, famed for taking an iconic image of
revolutionary Ernesto «Che» Guevara, La Guardia suddenly became a sensation.
Since then, Queen Sofia of Spain and American actor Jack Nicholson have
dined there. It now even has its own Web page.
Traveling here twice with food photographer Martin Jacobs, Cox visited
La Guarida and numerous other paladars for her cookbook, which includes
120 recipes from kitchens around Havana. They also visited state-run
restaurants and private homes, sampling dishes, collecting recipes,
talking with cooks.
Because the decades-old embargo and travel restrictions bar most
Americans from traveling here, they came with a U.S. license as
consultants for an American food company. «We just immersed ourselves in
the food,» she said.
Cox said she was impressed by Cuban chefs' resourcefulness in a country
plagued by frequent shortages, making «the best of what they have, using
pure, clean flavors and practicing simplicity in number of ingredients.
Most paladars have menus far less sophisticated than La Guarida's _ with
the most common dishes being basic chicken, pork or fish dishes. But all
have an overabundance of ambiance.
«The paladars are magical places, stylish and eclectic,» Cox said.
At La Esperanza paladar in Havana's leafy Miramar neighborhood, guests
sip minty mojito cocktails waiting for their table in overstuffed sofa
and chairs in the living of the restaurant owner's family home,
decorated with weathered statues of popular Catholic saints, old
white-and-black family photographs, and other eclectic bric-a-brac.
La Esperanza's tables are set with mismatched porcelain china and
silverware. The house specialty is a 1950s-era dish of tender pork
stewed in a popular malt soft drink. Also on the menu is a spicy
Thai-style chicken dish, and a simple grilled fish filet.
Visitors to the Cocina de Liliam paladar, where former U.S. President
Jimmy Carter ate during his May 2002 Cuba trip, sit on a patio
surrounded by lush ferns and a trio of burbling fountains as they munch
crunchy fritters of a root vegetable called malanga.
And at Cactus de 33, Fernando Barral, retired psychologist and former
comrade of «Che» Guevara, displays Cold War-era mementos including a
Communist Party newspaper clipping of him interviewing U.S. POW John
McCain, now the presumptive Republican U.S. presidential candidate,
during a 1970 trip to Vietnam for research on the North Vietnamese.
At Cactus de 33, guests dine on juicy grilled chicken breasts
accompanied by white rice and black beans as they sit on the front porch
of the huge white mansion, surrounded by towering cactus plants.
«There is a lot of creativity,» Cox said. «I don't think it is a mistake
that a place that has created such great artists and dancers and
musicians has also created such great cooks.
On the Net
La Guarida: www.laguarida.com