The Best Restaurant in Havana

Javier, one of the staff at the Airbnb where we are staying, was walking us through the dusty streets of Central Havana when he paused to point out a crowd of well-dressed people milling in front of a rather grand Baroque portal. A sign above the entrance read: “La Guardia.”

“That’s the best restaurant in Havana,” he struggled in his limited English. “Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated there.”

Javier was leading us to another restaurant just around the corner from La Guardia. We had asked him about good, authentic Cuban food, and he assured us that the deceptively named Notre Dame des Bijoux was the place to get it.

Jesus Gomez at his rooftop grill

We walked through a much less impressive portal into what seemed to be someone’s home (many of Cuba’s restaurants are run by people out of their homes). And quite a home it was — an explosion of tropical plants grew up from the floor, one wall was plastered with teacups, another was covered floor to ceiling with framed photographs. And in a throne-like chair, in a satin fuchsia robe with rings on every finger, surrounded by his ten toy dogs, was Tommy Reyes Martinez, a flamboyant former Cuban National Ballet dancer who owned the restaurant.

We exchanged pleasantries with Tommy, who handed a chihuahua no bigger than a squirrel to my daughter Willa and showed us the poster of the movie that was made about his life. Then Javier led us up the most narrow, un-handicap-friendly staircase ever onto the charming rooftop terrace, where broken-tile mosaics and wall murals continued the eclectic theme from below.

Digging into the fire-grilled chicken at Notre Dame des Bijoux

Our party of nine was seated at a large table of mismatched chairs in a back area where 18-month-old Iyla could have free run. The waitress took our drink order — mojitos for the adults, virgin daiquiris for the kids — and a tall man I’d noticed at the grill approached.

“Hola,” he said, “I am Jesus — no Cristo. We have a few specials tonight…”

In addition to the standard fare on the menu, Jesus was cooking chicken, pork chops and two kinds of fish — “big and small” — at the grill.

“I also sell cigars!” he said, before motioning me to the grill to see what he was doing.

On the fire were chicken leg/thigh combinations, meaty pork chops, and two different sizes of fish — big and small. Jesus doused everything with a cloudy greenish sauce from a large plastic water bottle. “Mi salsa secreta!” he told me.

*    *    *

The dinner was slow and casual. The mojitos arrived with appetizers of lobster cocktail, light and airy malanga fritters and fried plantain tostones. The mojitos were the best we’d yet had — a perfect balance of lime, sugar, mint and rum.

The main courses, our “specials” of grilled fish and chicken, were served with the ubiquitous moros y cristianos (“Moors & Christians” — black beans mixed with white rice) that we would enjoy with most of our meals in Cuba, and some delicious sautéed veggies.

As the evening progressed, I spent more time at the grill with Jesus, who had a big heart and a hearty laugh. I told him I was interested in some cigars, and liked the small ones. He brought out a small metal box with 10 little Cohibas, and handed it to me. “A gift,” he said. I brought my third mojito over, sat in a chair by the grill, and Jesus and I had a cigar.

The next day, we wandered about, exploring the Old Town, visiting museums, taking turns pushing Iyla over dusty torn up streets and cobblestone alleyways. The afternoon found us back in our neighborhood and thirsty.

“Shall we go visit Jesus for a mojito?” Steve suggested.

Hanging with Jesus

Our friend was at the grill, and beamed when he saw us. We sat in metal rocking chairs and at benches around the grill, and ordered mojitos and more virgin daiquiris for the kids. Jesus, who it turned out leases the space from Tommy and runs the restaurant, motioned the waitresses, who began bringing out snacks for the kids. We ate more grilled chicken, and sat for hours, chatting with Jesus and drinking mojitos.

“This is a very special rum,” Jesus said, manifesting more cigars and a bottle of special Cuban rum which he poured us to sip. I purchased a larger box of the small cigars I like from him, and with it he included one large cigar: “This is the best cigar in Cuba,” he said, “A gift”.

Steve and the girls, rooftop, La Concordia

That night, we went to another restaurant just a few steps from both Notre Dame des Bijoux and La Guardia, and I wondered if perhaps this little two-block section of Havana Centro on Concordia street was becoming a bit of a foodie destination. La Concordia had, apparently, just opened at the top of a recently restored building that also boasted a hostel (hotel). It was a less rustic, more upscale affair than Notre Dame — you didn’t have to walk through anyone’s home, although the stairs several flights up to the roof were equally daunting. (There was clearly no Cubans With Disabilities Act on the books.) The decor was contemporary; the restaurant would’ve been right at home in trendy Santa Monica.

We ordered mojitos, which tasted mostly of sparkling water and mint, and seemed lacking in lime, sugar and rum. While I dutifully drank mine, Leslie and Steve sent theirs back. To the restaurant’s credit, they asked what they could do to make them better.

A sample of the comedic menu at La Concordia

The menu featured many of the usual specialites Cubana — croquettas, chicken and rice dishes, grilled pork chunks — although presented in hilarious Google translations. When the food began to arrive, however, we realized they were doing something different.

The croquettas, four ham and four fish, were presented artfully on a rectangular plate with drizzles of several sweet sauces. At $2, quite the deal. A superb seafood carpaccio would’ve been at home on the best restaurant menu in Venice. Everyone loved the rich, silky chicken noodle soup (also $2) with big chunks of corn, and the chicken rice was the best we’d had on the island.

Croquettes at La Concordia

We would return to La Concordia, too, a few nights later — after our friends, the Harts, had left — and would have a slightly more uneven experience in a windstorm that blew over our drinks.

In a city as challenging as Havana, there is comfort in familiarity. Our favorite restaurants, bars and hotels would see much of our smiling American faces. And I realized that the best restaurant in Havana is not necessarily the place where Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated, but the place you feel most at home.

Sunset at La Concordia

The afternoon of our final full day in Havana, we stopped back into Notre Dame des Bijoux to visit Jesus at the grill. He embraced us, brought out mojitos, virgin daiquiris and snacks for the kids, a cigar for me. We stayed an hour or so, and as we left, I told him I would be back later that evening by myself for a mojito and cigar. But we were tired that night, and I didn’t make it.

Passing the last few hours the next day before our 5 p.m. flight, Leslie took the kids to the Hotel Ingleterre on the Central Plaza of Old Havana for a soda. I headed the few blocks to Notre Dame des Bijoux. Jesus looked surprised, happy and sad all at once.

Jesus and the girls

“I waited for you last night,” he said, pointing to the chairs where we had sat together on previous occasions.

I apologized, but pointed out that this was indeed the last place I wanted to visit before we left, which cheered him up.

Cubans have a lovely disconnectedness from the whirlwind of modern life. They represent, in some ways, the clichéd image of the naive innocent. A phone remains something of a luxury, we met people with nothing who were overjoyed at the simple act of meeting and greeting us. I felt in Cuba a warmth and hospitality, and a joie de vivre, that I have experienced no place else.

I sat with Jesus, sharing cigars and his special rum, explaining to him the importance of Trip Advisor and getting good reviews for his restaurant. I told him I would get him set up when I got home, write a glorious review. And told him when people enjoyed his restaurant, he should encourage them to write a review. He nodded eagerly as he took in everything I had to say, then paused to go get me a box of cigars as a “goodbye” gift.

Concordia street

We drank one more mojito, then it came time to leave, my new friend Jesus and I hugging warmly. I told him we would be back next year, and in the meantime, I would keep in touch. “Hermanos,” he said, looking me in the eye. I turned to go, and he said, “Wait!” He disappeared behind the bar, and emerged a moment later with another handful of cigars. I hugged him once more, and hurried out before I got teary. Maybe it was just the mojitos…

I gathered my family and our bags, and we were quiet on the rattly taxi ride in a vintage Ford to the airport — happy to be going home, but leaving a part of our hearts behind with the people of Cuba.

*    *    *

Jesus Gomez’s Secret Cuban Marinade
makes somewhere between 1 pint and 1 quart

1 cup lime juice
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt

Mix together ingredients, place in an empty sports water bottle or other container, and shake vigorously.

Let sit for a few hours or overnight for flavors to integrate.

Drizzle over chicken, pork or fish on the grill, shaking the bottle frequently. Baste each time you turn the meat, and once before you remove it from the heat.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    Apr 28, 2017 @ 00:02:07

    Nice post, I could think of no reason I’d want to go to Cuba if I couldn’t sit up half the night in seamy bars listening to music but you made it sound good without that..

    Reply

  2. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Apr 28, 2017 @ 01:29:27

    Wonderful experience Sean!

    Reply

  3. Amanda Bower
    Apr 28, 2017 @ 17:13:50

    Jesus gave you his secret recipe! You scored on that one. Cuba sounds beautiful. The rum alone would be enough to convince me to visit someday…

    Reply

  4. Polly Stramm
    May 29, 2017 @ 18:45:18

    Beautiful! My husband has known Jesus for 20 years. You are right on the mark with your description of him and the Cuban people.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 31, 2017 @ 23:09:52

      Validation — I love it! 😃
      Hoping to get back to that neighborhood same time next year, they won our hearts. (And I miss Jesus already!)

      Reply

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