Restaurant Review: La Guarida in Havana dishes up more than the ‘Strawberry & Chocolate’ Oscar nominated movie!

From my Havana Guide Book as well as recommendations I learnt that La Guarida was deemed to be the best restaurant in Cuba. As I wanted to try out only the best the city had to offer, the BnB Manager Alain booked the restaurant for lunch on the special Cuban public holiday of 26 July, an apt day to celebrate my interesting stay in and imminent departure from Cuba.
 

 
I arrived half an hour early at the restaurant, and started photographing the entrance, which has a majestic balustrade downstairs. Perhaps this is why the restaurant describes its home as a ‘palace’, even though not all of the building is used by the restaurant. In the entrance hall is a wall painting of Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the hero fighters of the Cuban Revolution. And next to it is a quote by Fidel Castro, in Spanish, but I could not understand it. At the foot of the staircase is a statue of a headless female form in marble. 
 
Then the bizarrest thing happened to me. A man in a red T-shirt came up to me, confidently, welcomed me, introduced himself as Willian, and showed me around the building. First to the first floor, wading through the washing line filled with restaurant table cloths and napkins, and took me to the balcony, to show me the ‘view’ of the street outside. Then he showed me the second floor, and indicating that behind a specific door the movie ‘Strawberry & Chocolate’ had been filmed. This information I already knew from my Guide Book, and saw it mentioned in the restaurant sign outside on the building too. He then pointed up to a staircase going up to a glass-enclosed rooftop bar, and in sign language made me understand that he had tumbled down from the top, and then showed me his scars. All the time I thought Willian, as he introduced himself, was a manager of or related to the restaurant, even though he was casually dressed. Then we went downstairs again, and he mentioned that he wanted to show me something next door, I expecting it to be related to the restaurant. But it was his tiny home, with the smallest lounge, his kitchen, and a bedroom on the mezzanine level. Now I was starting to get worried, and a stream of Spanish followed. And then I heard the word ‘money’. All of the ‘sightseeing tour’ was engineered to request money from me. I got out of there super fast.
 
 I saw a staff member of the restaurant at the washing line, and asked where I could find the restaurant. He said on the second floor, but that it is not yet open. I asked what I should do. He said I could wait outside, which would have meant in the street. So I sat on the marble staircase instead, until midday struck, and went upstairs, looking for the restaurant. On my way in I had to duck the napkins down the passage, before I walked past the ladies cloakroom (photograph right, with a pink marble basin, and making hand wipe cloths a decor feature), various sections of the kitchen, and landed up at the bar. It was 12h07 by now, and it took another five minutes for the hostess Diane to emerge, telling me to sit in the reception, and wait some more, so that she could check if my table was ready. The staff were busy finishing off their staff lunch in one of the restaurant dining rooms, when I stuck my head through the door, photographing while I was waiting to be shown to my table. I was the only customer in the restaurant at this stage! I told the hostess about the incident with Willian, and she reacted as if I was telling her a nonsense story.  
 
Such was my bizarre introduction to La Guarida, Cuba’s best restaurant!
 
Waiter Miguel showed me to a table, brought me the menu, told me to ‘have a good time’, and a second later asked me what I wanted to drink. I didn’t even have a chance to open the menu! Luckily he was very quickly replaced by waitress Claudia, clearly the better English speaker of the two. My only other interaction with him was when I went to the Rooftop Bar on my own, saw two tall buildings in the distance, and asked him what one of the two was. Quickly he brushed me off, saying that the building was unimportant. What he wanted to say actually is that he didn’t know! That was the end of my interaction with Miguel!
 
Claudia was knowledgeable, professional, and her English was excellent. She told me later that she was lucky to have two good English teachers at school, and that she taught herself the language by watching movies without Spanish subtitles, as well as music videos. 
 
I noted the introduction to the gold A4 Menu, and that each dish was described in Spanish and in English. The introduction was as follows:  ‘The Guarida paladar (old fashioned word for restaurant) opened in 14 July, 1996, in a beautiful palace of the early twentieth century. Today it is a multifunctional building, offering a unique environment where the daily routine of the restaurant is mixed with the tasks of a fancy restaurant (do they mean the tablecloth and napkin washing and drying?). In 1993, filmed in this building was the legendary film ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’, the first and, so far, only Cuban film nominated for OSCAR awards and winner of countless distinctions. The story of friendship between the homosexual Diego and the young communist David, marked as before and after in Cuban society, was I (sic) its great call against intolerance. ‘Welcome to the Gaurida’…. tells Diego to David in the famous movie. ‘Welcome to the Guarida’ we tell you, convinced that in our house, you can discover a city in three periods: historical, current daily living, and hope for the future’. Phew, the English clearly is a direct translation from Spanish, but the messsage is clear. 
 
What I loved about the menu is that particularly spicy dishes were marked with a chili symbol  – how I would love to see this indicated on South African Menus. Cubans are not users of strong spices in their foods. 
 
The owner is Enrique Núñez, who transformed his family home into the restaurant, after the movie was filmed in the building, at a time when the first self-employment licences were issued in Cuba. VIP guests who have eaten at the restaurant include Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Beyoncé, and former Queen Sofia of Spain. 
 
The rooms are painted in a light yellow, and the chairs are formal, but a mix of styles at the tables. White embroidered linen tablecloths, white napkins, a classic style knife and fork, aluminium topped salt and pepper grinders, and an ordinary coloured water glass make up the minimalistic table decor.
 
Claudia told me that as they have no ready market to shop from, they sometimes have to alter some of the dishes on the menu if ingredients are in short supply. On my luncheon day, the kitchen was short of ingredients for two starters, the eggplant caviar and a cream soup. They were replaced with the following dishes, an octopus carpaccio, and a smoked duck salad. The fish of the day was Red Snapper, prepared in one of two styles, fried in butter and served with a white wine sauce, or grilled and served with tomatoes, sweet potatoes, radish, and bananas, the latter no doubt fried . They were also out of roast chicken as well as pork loin, but replacement dishes were veal escalopes and lobster, both at 22 CUC. 
 
While the food was being prepared, I climbed up to the rooftop bar, and took some photographs, seeing the ocean to one side at the Malecón.  
 
I ordered a pineapple juice, and was impressed that it came with a metal straw, Diane proudly telling me that they do not support plastic straws any more, which I’ve seen all over Havana. It was freshly made, and had bottled water added, she said.  I went through the A5 leather-bound winelist out of interest, and nearly fell off the chair when I saw a Ken Forrester Syrah Reserve 2018 on the wine list, the only South African wine, at 40 CUC. Laurent Perrier champagne costs 150 CUC. Red wines offered are Spanish, Italian, and French, plus our one bottle, from 25 CUC a bottle upwards. Wine by the glass is not listed on the wine list, but I was told verbally that there are two Italian reds (5/7 CUC) and one white (5 CUC).
 
The Octopus Carpaccio (8CUC) was presented on a chilled plate very similarly to the way I’ve eaten it at Villa 47, making it a nostalgic lunch, what with the Ken Forrester and Villa 47 connections. The kitchen had plated the octopus with a ridge of tomatoes down the centre, and sprinkled it with a green herb. Claudia then added the black olives to my plate at the table. The Carpaccio had a vinaigrette, and I detected a taste of coriander! It was a refreshing start to my meal, on yet another hot Havana day. 
 
At this stage a family arrived, with two and four year old sons, seated near my table, making as if they were at their family dinner table, and I was invisible, making such a noise. I asked to be moved to the next door room, the one which has the decor from the ’Strawberry and Chocolate’ movie (the second of the two dining room photographs above), so it was win win for me. Each room has a volume button to the American style jazz music playing in the restaurant, so Claudia turned it up, to drown out the children’s noise. This room had a number of religious artifacts in it, interesting to me in repeating the religious theme of San Christóbal, where I had eaten two days prior, but it was the movie producers who had designed the decor for the room, three years before it opened as a restaurant, and more than a decade before San had opened its doors. When I questioned how such young and noisy children could be allowed in the restaurant, I was told that they are a family business, so they welcome everybody! 
 
In describing the Duck Salad (9 CUC) to me, Claudia had told me that it contained two styles of smoked duck, breast as well as confit, with lettuce, a mousse of paw paw and mango, adding good colour to the plate, as well as a smear of Dijon mustard and honey. It was meant to have Brie cheese in it too. Diane did a sales job on me, via the kitchen, asking me if I would like some Cuban feta on it, the chef highly recommending it to me. Clearly the kitchen had run out of Brie cheese too….! I accepted, and she brought the feta to the table, allowed me to taste one bite of it first, and then plated the rest of it onto the salad. The kitchen had added the dried cranberries already. 
 
Other starters on the extensive list include chicken crepes, green salad with feta, melon gazpacho, cheese ravioli, fish Carpaccio, pawpaw lasagna, tacos, tuna tartare, and beef carpaccio, in a price range of 7 – 10 CUC. Bread costs extra at 2 CUC.
 
Main courses are more restricted, tuna with ‘sugarcane’, fish of the day, lamb Tika Marsala,  suckling pig, rabbit, shredded beef Ropa Vieja, chicken curry, and ‘baked chicken’, in a price range of 15 – 20 CUC. Sides are typically Cuban, including fried green bananas, yuca, black beans, white rice, and sweet potatoes, at 2,50 CUC. 
 
I looked at the list of desserts, and it seemed obvious to choose the Strawberry and Chocolate Fondant (9 CUC), even though it was the most expensive dessert. It was a good chocolate fondant, although tiny, and the only strawberry in the dessert were dots of Strawberry jam in the paisley shapes created with cocoa powder. A fresh strawberry would have livened up the plate, and would have been more honest! Even though I had eaten enough, I had an ice cream urge, and ordered a scoop each of strawberry and chocolate ice cream, at the cost of 4,50 CUC. Initially a very soft vanilla and strawberry ice cream was served as per my request, and the kitchen should not have let it come to the table. I sent it back, and the vanilla was replaced with the chocolate, in keeping with the Strawberry and Chocolate theme! 
 
Other desserts I could have ordered are lemon pie, three milk chocolate, coconut soup with caramelised French Toast, and apple pastry, costing around 8 CUC. 
 
The Menu details drinks too, other than wines, and a range of cocktails is available, costing between 4 and 6 CUC. National and imported beers cost the same, at 3 CUC. 
 
Even though the menu mentioned it, I did not see that a service charge of 10 % would be added to the bill. It was a shock to see a bill. And a printed one at that, I receiving a handwritten one at San Cristóbal two days prior, which had to be rewritten so that I could have a copy of it. They charged a 2 CUC ‘tax’, which La Guarida did not, perhaps different words for the same thing! I felt much more at home and relaxed at La Guarida, enjoying their higher level cuisine, their concern for the environment, the beautiful entrance to this restaurant downstairs, the international cuisine, the excellent English and service from Claudia, and the link to the movie ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ which I now definitely will have to see. Visitors to La Guarida should be warned about not falling for the guided tour of the building by Willian, that the ‘doorman’ is a local dressed in casual clothes not befitting the job title, that they will wade through the table linen laundry on the way to the restaurant, and have to deal with the ice cold unwelcoming hostess Diane, before the charming and efficient Claudia warmly makes one feel welcome in the restaurant. There was no sign of the owner, and I was shown a photograph of him in a book about the restaurant!  It was a surprise to see a website address on the menu, and their Social Media being Facebook and Twitter….. and TripAdvisor!  Instagram has minimal usage in Cuba, from what I could see. I am the ultimate TripAdvisor cynic, and noticed every bar, restaurant, hotel, and shops even having the TripAdvisor signs displayed. 
 
 
La Guarida, 418 Concordia, Centro, Havana.  Tel +53 7 866 9047. www.laguarida.com. Twitter: @laguarida 
 
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein
 

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