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Havana's International-Style Restaurants Hardly Measure Up

The rumours are true. Food in Cuba is nothing to write home about. As most restaurants in Havana strive to be international-style establishments, the results fall insufferably short. But let's put it in perspective. For a country with limited resources, narrow foreign contacts, and stringent government controls in place, they aptly survive.

A Prado y Neptuno
Corner Paseo del Prado and Neptuno
More than a dozen pizzas and pastas are on the menu at this funky joint housed in a gracefully dilapidated building. Quattro Stagione (pictured below) is quite a reliable choice at a place where Che Guevara's neo-pop images adorn the walls. There is a bar in the inner room that is usually packed with well-heeled locals and there is also a decent wine collection.

Los Portales
267 Ignacio Agromonte
Located inside the Hotel Plaza where Albert Einstein, Isadora Ducan, and Babe Ruth once stayed. Los Portales restaurant, just like the hotel, has an air of faded grandeur to it. Sadly, the food, although cheap, was nothing short of terrible. This pizza appears to be a collection of kitchen leftovers--a mishmash of green beans, corn, olives, green peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and mystery meat.

Cafeteria Prado No.12
12 Paseo del Marti (Prado) and San Lazaro
Inside a Neoclassical French-Moorish flatiron building is the airy Prado No.12 where we found plenty of seafood on offer. I decided on lobster while my husband had their catch-of-the-day. Both came severely overcooked, and it totally baffled me why they would find the need to deep fry lobster meat in batter!

El Santo Angel
Corner of Calle Teniente Rey and San Ignacio
Housed in a colonial mansion with tables spilling out onto Plaza Vieja's flagstone courtyard, El Santo Angel must be one of the most romantic sites to dine at. One of the few places in Havana with a selection of beef, this place is regrettably more about ambience than it is food, but they do get a plus for effort in presentation and service. Unfortunately, the standards are not quite there yet, as the quality of their steak was under par, and my chicken with almonds was drowning in its sauce. Luckily, the Buena Vista Social Club (or the remains of them, at least) plays here regularly.

La Dominica
108 Calle O'Reilly corner Mercaderes
Out of the bunch, this is my obvious favourite, making me a willing visitor each time. Dubbed as the city's best Italian restaurant, La Dominica consistently delivers excellent antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, and dolci. It also has an umbrella-shaded patio that overlooks the stone walls of Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The generously portioned spaghetti alla Bolognese and Carbonara both exceeded expectations. They actually had bacon in my Carbonara!

Junction of Neptuno, Prado, and Zulueta, inside NH Parque Centrale Hotel
An upscale establishment that offers buffet and a la carte dining with a decidedly Caribbean-Mediterranean flavour. Service is more refined here, with a plate of delectable tuna crostini offered as free starters to reel you in. My red snapper filet with mushroom risotto and pesto was heavenly, although I would have called the rice as pilaf instead of risotto. The rooftop pool and view are not to be missed, day or night!

Los Nardos
Corner of Teniente Rey and Dragones, a few steps from El Capitolio
Run by the Asturias Society, this Spanish restaurant can't be too far from the authentic. Blink and you'll miss this secluded restaurant, although the line outside will usually point to its entrance. Inside, it has a feeling of a wine cave, with mahogany walls bedecked with old soccer memorabilia, and its lofty ceilings hung with old-fashioned iron candelabras. A pianist entertains diners in the dimly-lit room full of heavy wooden tables and carved chairs. The menu is quintessentially Spanish, but to our detriment, the chicken dish had a slight teriyaki taste to it, and the gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimps) came a bit overcooked.

Prado Restaurant
Corner of Calle Colon and Moro, Hotel Park View top floor
A few redeeming qualities make this place bearable, including the outstanding view of the sea and the Museo de la Revolucion's dome from the rooftop. Staff were also super friendly and would give our child extra fruits or juice even when rations are low. Served in a clay casserole, the arroz del pueblo is a decent rice dish garnished with all sorts of vegetables, and so we had no qualms ordering this repeatedly.

For a more genuine taste of Cuba, try booking ahead at a paladar --government-authorized dining rooms in private homes that can offer a maximum of 12 seats. One of the more popular ones is La Cocina de Lilliam at 1311 Calle 48, entrance 13 and 15, Playa. Phone: 537-2096514

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Havana's International-Style Restaurants Hardly Measure Up + travel