Nov 19, 2019

Paladar dining perfected at Buenaventura, Havana, Cuba

It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed already since Punky and I completed our cruise to Cuba and scratched off one of her premier bucket list items.  I guess the best memories you make in life stay fresh with you always. 

From the daylong tour of Havana in a classic convertible car and our pit stop in the funky Fusterlandia neighborhood to the cruise itself, much of that trip has already been documented on this blog, but there’s one more memorable occasion I promised to blog about last year.  Promise kept, as we look back on an unforgettable lunch at Buenaventura. 

Unlike many state-run restaurants in Havana that cater to tourists, Buenaventura falls into the category of a paladar, a home-based family-run restaurant that’s intended to give tourists a more authentic dining experience.  Paladares were technically illegal in Cuba until the 1990s, but by 2010 the government had loosened considerably the definition of what a paladar can be. 

No longer constrained to be just a small family operation capable of only serving a handful of visitors at a time, Buenaventura has taken the paladar concept to the next level.  It certainly helps that a lot of tour guides like our friends Jorge and Rainier take their tours to Buenaventura for lunch.  From the moment you walk through the gated entrance to the courtyard behind the family home, you can tell you’re in for something special.     

Although we arrived midday on a Thursday, Buenaventura was a packed house – or rather a packed patio where all of the diners were seated. 

The rest of the courtyard was seemingly just as packed with people waiting patiently for a table.  Fortunately, with a courtyard as scenic at Buenaventura’s and with such pleasant weather, nobody seemed to mind at all.  Our guides set us up with the perfect spot to wait for an open table and took their own break by a bar area near the other end of the patio. 

Punky was particularly impressed to see the owner of the establishment also seated in the courtyard addressing patrons he knew, all the while puffing deliberately on a long cigar.  So impressed, in fact, that she began referring to him as her future ex-husband.  I have to admit, he did have a strong presence.   

Before long, enough tables had cleared for the waitstaff at Buenaventura to seat us at a tidy table for two near the center of the veranda.  We began the task of deciding what to eat from a surprisingly lengthy and diverse menu. 

As you many notice, Buenaventura’s menu also seems to take its tourist clientele heavily into consideration.  The English descriptions for most menu items were extremely helpful, and prices were quoted in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) which roughly exchanged equally with the U.S. dollar.     

Ordering could not have been much easier, even if the waitress’ English was spotty and our Spanish was non-existent.  We decided to try one of the chef’s recommendations for two.  It seemed like the perfect way to sample as many items as possible.  We also ordered an appetizer of toston barracon – fried plantain with fish.  

Waiting in the courtyard did seem to make us quite thirsty, though, so once we decided we each had to have an authentic mojito, it was easy for our waitress to talk us into “trading up” to the El Gran Mojito.  

We decided the meal could not be complete without experiencing an authentic mojito, and maybe it was the language barrier, or maybe we were just ready for a good stiff drink, but it was fairly easy for our waitress to talk us into “trading up” to the El Gran Mojito.  With drinks ordered, we watched as our waitress turned our request in and the bartender went to work. 

This was the end result – a quart pitcher of mojitos.  Not just any mojitos, though.  Strong, quenching Havana Club rum mojitos with fresh mint and lime juice.  We initially wondered if we could finish the pitcher by the end of lunch, but we eventually proved to be up to the challenge.  

The meal started simply enough with a small salad, nothing special but enough to get the appetite motivated for more.

The arrival of the appetizers, however, signaled the beginning of an exceptional meal.  I’ve only enjoyed fried plantains sparingly, but these certainly seemed ideally prepared to me.  The tiny shreds of fish and Cuban sauce on top blended brought three distinct flavors together quite well. 

Finally, the mixed grill plate for two turned out to be the perfect choice for us.  We were each able to sample from the grilled chicken, pork loin, lamb and chorizo at will, and all seemed marinated perfectly and cooked to amazing tenderness.  A family portion of black beans and rice rounded out an outstanding Cuban dining experience.      

Well, almost rounded out, because much to our surprise we were treated to complimentary cigars and shots of 7-year Havana Club rum at the conclusion of the meal.  I’m not a cigar aficionado (although Punky had no problem saving it for later), but I certainly found a way to finish off one last taste of rum even with a giant mojito and extravagant lunch in my belly.     

We left Buenaventura to conclude our daylong tour of Havana in an even more carefree state of mind than when we arrived.  Honestly, between the food, atmosphere and rum, how could you not?  If Buenaventura is like other paladares in Havana, you simply must add this type of dining experience to any Cuban excursion.  

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