It isn’t food. I’ve now had three major meals here, not including breakfasts, which is, I realize, a small sample. But never one to shy away from making premature judgements, I’m ready to judge. I’m pretty sure they have no idea how to cook in Cuba. Maybe it’s the commies, perhaps it’s the years the rooskies were here, but either they never knew how to cook, or, if they did, they’ve forgotten.
Granted, we’ve been eating at all the high end places, such as they are. These are the ones that get great ratings in TripAdvisor where people try to prove how smart they are about hotels and restaurants. The odd thing is all of the restaurants look great. They are charming and hospitable with hard working, young, attractive wait staff. The tables are set properly, often even elegantly, and I find myself looking forward to the meal even though I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s going to, shall we say, suck. And, so far, it has. Sucked that is.
Last night after a lovely stroll through Habana Vieja (Old Havana for you linguistically challenged gringos) and a stop at El Floridita (Hemingway’s old bar haunt) for a few pops of rum and whatever else it is that they put in the pervasive Mojitos, we arrived at El Hotel Florida, a building first constructed in 1836, but which lay fallow for twenty five years after the revolution. Finally it was rehabbed and rehabbed again into to a beautiful period piece.
We arrived in good spirits to a spectacular room with columns, arches, three level ceilings, greenery and table settings for thirty eight gringos that would have made any wedding planner wild with envy. “This is it”, I thought as they greeted us at the door with another glass of cheap Chilean red. I didn’t even care. This was it. Finally, the best of Cuban gourmet dining in the offing.
My euphoria rapidly began to wane as they delivered the basket of bread, which must come out of some central kitchen deep in the bowels of Havana. I don’t know how they can bake bread that is tough to chew, mushy and tasteless, all in the same loaf. Tip: if you slather it with butter and douse it with salt, wash it down with a double gulp of Chilean red, it’s almost edible.
The meal started on a low note with another of the unusual mystery salads. It was composed of a small mound of shredded cabbage along side of a lettuce leaf of suspicious origin topped with julienne of carrots and some type of squash drowned with a large dollop of mayo. A small pile of not-quite-ripe tomatoes (evidently the only kind they have in Cuba) sprinkled with minced beets. I should have stopped right there. Nothing with beets on it should be given serious consideration for consumption, but, hey, I was hungry. There were small bits of other unidentifiable stuff strewn about the plate, which was topped by two, small green pitted olives that had seen better days.
I pushed the salad around on my plate for a respectable time and turned my attention to the green mystery soup. It was neither hot nor cold, sweet nor sour, tart nor mellow. Indeed it had absolutely no taste at all. Even applying heavy doses of S and P could not revive it. It guess there must be some art to creating a dish that has absolutely no taste….good or bad.
The entree offers were either beef with mushrooms and gravy or lobster stuffed with shrimp. I ignored my longstanding maxim of never ordering anything stuffed with anything, but I was intrigued. How would one stuff shrimp into a lobster. Answer, they didn’t. They piled it on top. When served the whole concoction not only looked repulsive, it had the aroma of three day old fish left on the kitchen counter. I chewed a couple of the shrimp and poked at the lobster with my knife. My knife sprang back and I gave up the effort. A small dollop of mashed potatoes which smelled only slightly fishy was eaten forthwith.
The piece de resistance was the desert. My experience to date had been either flan (not bad) or ice cream (really mediocre), but this was a new one. A large plate contained a glazed, or perhaps it was candied, slice of pineapple with a streak of red, viscous liquid strung around the plate ending on the far side at a hardened berry of some kind. I took a bite just to say I had, and regretted it immediately.
The highlight of the meal was when, for god knows what reason, one of our group stood and sang a short aria from Don Giovanni. Yep. That’s right an opera at the end of our meal. A bizarre ending to a bizarre meal. If the meal had been as good as the aria, it would have been a great event.
Oh, I forgot. Another mediocre Chilean red to chase it all down.
I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
PS. This restaurant was at the top end of the food chain for “state owned” restaurants. More about private restaurants (paladars) later.