By ANITA SNOW | Associated Press
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 communist Cuba.
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 self-employment.
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 $12 to $15. With drinks and sides, a meal for two runs about $60.
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 in Havana.
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 $4 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 came slowly.
“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.”