Havana school teaches islander culinary, cultural ways of Cuba
Huge, hot pans are rocking to a Cuban beat at Havana’s Artechef Restaurante Escuela. A tantalizing combination of fresh shrimp, finely chopped vegetables and aromatic seasonings sizzle on the front burner as Executive Chef Carlos Soto explains the preparation of what will be the restaurant’s luncheon special for the day.
With a quick tilt of Soto’s wrist and a splash of rum, a stunning burst of flames is conducted skyward. Amid appreciative oohs and aahs, there’s an anticipatory smile on all faces as the glow subsides. The day’s main course is ready to be plated and served.
Just a few blocks from the city’s famous El Malecon — Havana’s counterpart of Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard — and within walking distance of numerous historic landmarks, the school with its associated restaurant is just one example of the delights to be discovered in Cuba’s capital city.
With tourism emerging as the island nation’s primary economic driver, a visitor’s search for good food can be a rewarding and revealing quest.
In addition to the black beans and white rice that have long been a mainstay of the Cuban diet, visitors can expect to enjoy a variety of savory entrees featuring mainly chicken with some seafood, but very little red meat.
The menu for today’s Artechef demonstration and lunch is an elegant departure from the Cuban standard, however, and includes several courses, beginning with an appetizer of delicate pastries with fluted edges and seasoned with a mixture of fresh, finely chopped tomatoes, onion, cheese and garlic. It could be thought of as the Cuban version of bruschetta. A second course of ceviche topped with a swipe of Louis-style sauce is beautifully presented with a garnish of fresh lime wedge, parsley and slices of fresh, red radish. Both the first and second courses are accompanied by a light chenin blanc from Spain’s Torres vineyards.
When questioned, Carlos Ruiz Rodriguez, the wine steward, explains with a smile that none of the wines served today will be from the United States, but there are excellent selections from other countries. It’s a further refinement of the statement we visitors hear often from most Cubanos — they proudly declare over and over again that they may not have everything they want, but they have everything they need.
A very smooth chardonnay accompanies our third course of chicken pate atop licorice-and dill-flavored greens and drizzled with red pepper oil.
Next in this symphony of flavors is what Soto calls an “intermezzo,” which is a palate-cleansing course for which he has created a soft peach and apricot sorbet served in a martini glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry, a slice of guava and a sprig of fresh mint.
Flamed shrimp, arranged three to a skewer, arrive next, artfully arranged on a bed of lettuce and radicchio, and accompanied by clams in a Creole-style sauce that is perfectly framed by a chilled rose wine, refreshing and light.
For dessert, or postre, chilled moscato is accompanied by a delicate flan and sponge cake combination, garnished with basil, honey and candied kumquat peel. Next, a choice of bite-size chocolate bonbons, individually wrapped in colorful foil, is offered, along with rich, hot coffee and an array of fine liqueurs.
We students are well satiated by the time our class and luncheon end, but not overly full as portions in Cuba are moderate by U.S. standards.
It has been a most pleasant and serene interlude, and those of us from Galveston cannot help but ponder that our home is known as an island city and Cuba is an island nation. It also is noteworthy that the south coast of Texas and the north coast of Cuba look out on the same sea. It is a gulf, for sure, but it is only a gulf — and it seems to be narrowing by the day.