Initially in my 25-day stay in Havana I avoided eating any meals at restaurants, based on what I observed when I walked past many of them in Old Havana in the main, and looking at their menus. As Abel Exposito is the father of the San Lazaro 115 BnB owner at which I stayed, a few street blocks apart in the same street, I decided to add Casa Abel Restaurante Cigar Bar to my list of chosen three restaurants to eat at in my last week in Havana.
Eating at the restaurant happened spontaneously, when I saw Abel Jnr at the BnB, having just returned from a day trip to Fusterlandia and to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, so I was on a visual and informational high. I asked Abel when his father would be returning to Havana, having been told that he is out of town, which was more like out of the country, in Mexico, I learnt subsequently. I wanted to plan my trip to coincide with meeting Abel Snr, he having held an important position in the cigar industry in Havana, being the Director of the Partagas cigar shop for nineteen years.
When Abel Snr left Partagas, and the restrictions on restaurants were relaxed in Cuba – initially from being allowed to serve 12 guests at a time only, then up to 50, to now where there are no such restrictions – he planned to open a Cigar Bar, but as that was not a recognised business he could get an operating licence for, he added the restaurant to offer both services in 2014, a unique point of difference for a restaurant operating in the Cigar Capital of the world!
Abel Jnr spontaneously invited me to join him at Abel’s, heading there for lunch, and I accepted in surprise. We drove the few blocks to the restaurant, which is located above a fruit shop and ‘butcher’, a chalk and cheese difference between what one sees below, and the oasis of minimalistic luxury and style one enters when stepping into the restaurant. Abel Jnr proudly showed me a collage of VIP
photographs taken with his father over the years, with Jack Nicholson, and a blond Michael Bublé, amongst many others, as well as a separate photograph of his father receiving the Cigar Personality of the Year Award in 2000 from President Fidel Castro, showing me the Award too, proudly standing in the foyer of the restaurant, in the Bar area. Here I met Mrs Exposito. Abel Jnr ordered a Mojito for each of use refreshing but strong on another hot day.
We went up a beautiful circular staircase to the Smoking Room, a stylishly designed room with a couch and easy chairs in brown, a table with an interesting design made of corners of picture frames under a glass cover, and a Humidor in which very select and matured Monte Cristo, Romeo y Juliet, and other top cigar brands are stored alongside bottles of Moët et Chandon. I saw the small private dining room too. Upstairs is a rooftop terrace, which Abel Jnr may develop into something.
We went downstairs, and were seated in the dining section, with French doors opening onto the terrace, allowing one to see the ocean and enjoy its breeze a block away, the luck in a building across the road having been razed to the ground. On the table were underplates, wine glasses, and a napkin revealing a knife and fork.
I had read in my Havana Guide Book about the speciality of the house being Beer can chicken, and Abel explained that they soak it in rum, put a can with beer inside the chicken while roasting it, giving it an unusual intrigue, and making it even more soft and tender, whilst golden brown on the outside (12,50 CUC). I was served a very generous chicken leg and thigh, simply presented on the plate with slices of steamed carrots, rolled cucumber, pimento, slices of tomato, parsley, and carrots Julien. It was a surprise when the waitress brought more
dishes to the table, both Cuban specialities: rice with black beans, which I had heard so much about, the national dish, as well as another Cuban favorite, being fried green bananas, but golden yellow in colour, both these side dishes adding colour to the plate, in that the rice takes on the colour of the black beans. But that was not it. A large salad was brought to the table, a collage of tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and cabbage, with accompanying olive oil and balsamic vinegar (3,50 CUC)
Not having eaten a cooked dish since leaving Santiago de Compostela at the end of my Camino three weeks prior, I felt like I was in food heaven. I had not seen nor eaten a carrot in two months since leaving home, and the same applied to the cucumber, lettuce, as well as the parsley. Abel finished off the meal with an Espresso, and then we were on our way, returning to the BnB.
Starters include Bread and butter 2,50 CUC,
Fried cheese, with candied fruit, and coffee liqueur (6,50 CUC), a Selection of appetisers (6,50 CUC), Pork, chicken, and pineapple bruschetta (5,50 CUC), Lobster and shrimp in yoghurt sauce (10 CUC),a Variety of croquettes (6,50 CUC), and Shrimp cocktail (7,50 CUC).
Main courses offered are Seafood pasta (14 CUC), Grilled fish (15 CUC), Shrimp dishes (12/13 CUC), Seafood casserole (20 CUC), Pork medallions (12,50 CUC), Lamb stew (12 CUC), Grilled chicken (12,50 CUC), and Ropa vieja – shredded beef traditional Cuban dish (12,50 CUC)
Sides like rice and black beans cost 2,50 – 3,00 CUC. Flan (3,50 CUC) and ice cream (4,50 CUC) are the two desserts offered.
Whiskies range from 5 CUC (Ballantine) – 30,90 CUC (Chivas Regal 25 year old), Gin brands cost 4 – 5 CUC.
It was a golden opportunity to eat a Cuban meal with traditional side dishes for the first time, with Abel explaining aspects of it to me, and I being able to get to know more about him, his past work in running a Cuban Cigar Shop in Geneva, and his decision to open a BnB. #Gracias.
Casa Abel Restaurante Cigar Bar, 319 San Lazaro, Centro, Havana, Cuba. Tel +53 7 860 6589 www.restaurantecasaabel.com
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein