July 23, 2018

Cafe Havana: It's More Than Just A Bar

I have a long list of places I want to visit locally and abroad, and one of them is Cuba. It’s one of the most colorful countries there is in the world with a rich history to boot. Besides all that, just think about Salsa dancing, its beaches, its diverse music & culture, its colorful colonial towns and Old Havana; it’s all but alluring to me. No wonder, it’s a place American author Ernest Hemingway loved to visit regularly. And oh of course, every time I hear the word Havana, I can't help but sing Camila Cabello's song "Havana-oooh-na-na!" LOL!


It’s a known fact that Cuba is one of the Caribbean’s most amazing travel destinations but I’ve also read from somewhere that food is amazing out there and the cocktails are even better. And they say Cuba’s food scene is a revelation. Cuban cuisine is a blend of Native American Taino food, Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisines. So I won’t be surprised if Cuban dishes are bursting with flavors. 

I’ve said this one too many times before, whenever I travel, what excites me more than the tourist destinations is the local cuisine. And since going to Cuba is not in the very near future and I won’t be eating authentic Cuban food any time soon, what I can do is get acquainted with it by searching for places around the metro where they serve them. Unfortunately, there’s not so many of them in the Philippines. Moreover, most of them only offer Cuban sandwiches, Cuban rum, the Daiquiri, Mojito, and Cuba Libre. That’s about all that you can find, and so I thought, until Café Havana

Café Havana is the first Cuban restaurant-bar in the country and is Manila's best known bar, internationally. Café Havana is not only about mojito and salsa, it's also about food. The Cuban style of cooking is simple in concept but complex in flavor. It owes its heritage and tradition from Africa and neighboring Caribbean cultures. A lot of the food is sautéed or slow-cooked over a slow flame and relies on spice staples such as garlic, cumin, oregano, and bay leaves. Café Havana strives to replicate the food and mood of Havana Viejo, or old Havana. It’s a restaurant by day and a salsa place by night.

Back in college, me and my friends would usually go to Greenbelt to watch a movie or hang out. We would have coffee at Starbucks or Seattle’s Best and Café Havana is smacked right in the middle of those two coffee shops. But none of us ever thought of checking it out for food or drinks. To be honest Café Havana had an unfavorable image for years, if you're from Metro Manila, you probably have an idea what I mean. We're not here to talk about that though because I  want to highlight their food offerings. 

Also, guess what? Take all that off, it’s more than just a bar. Their menu is surprisingly an extensive one! Bet you didn't know that! Don't worry, I'm like most of you. Let's forgive one another for being humans who most of the time are easy to judge without getting to know someone or something first before making assumptions. Its late owner, Larry J. Cruz went to Cuba before and completely fell in love with the local cuisine and decided to bring it to the Philippines, thus Café Havana in Malate was born. 

Some Cuban recipes share spices and techniques with influences from Spanish, African, Caribbean, Chinese and Italian cooking, spice and flavor. I was excited to try some of them during a visit to Café Havana at Greenbelt 3 with fellow foodies. Check them out: 

Sopa de Frijoles Negros - Cuban style black bean soup. Black bean soup and black bean itself is popular throughout the Caribbean, but it is especially well loved in Cuba. This soup is truly savoury and has an upfront black bean taste, also the spices within added just the right amount of flavor. Also I found out that black beans, are loaded with magnesium, fiber, potassium, and plant-based protein for tissue repair.

Spareribs Habanera - original baked spare ribs served with our unique guava sauce. This is one of the best-sellers at Cafe Havana and it's not surprising because like Cubans, we Filipinos love to eat meat especially pork that is grilled, baked etc. The pork was juicy and tender, even the fat pat was so soft. With regards to the sauce, I’ve never eaten guava besides raw and as a snack especially when I was a kid because we have a tree on our backyard at our ancestral house. The pork blended well with the slightly sweet delicious sauce. It was something new to my palate but I truly enjoyed it. The rice that it came with was also very tasty. I also loved that it came with grilled tomato (my fave!) and fried banana. Though the banana used is a local one and not plantains, but it's  still all good. For some the flavors in this dish might be too overwhelming but I guess this is how Cuban cuisine is. This this I seriously think is very representative of the Cuban’s rich and colorful culture, ancestry and history. 

Caribbean Salmon with Mango Mambo Salsa - fillet of salmon with mango and grain mustard sauce, served with squid ink rice. Ok, I might sound a bit biased since I am a huge salmon fan and a mango fan as well. And combining them in a dish is just simply amazing. I don’t usually eat a dish that uses a sweet fruit as an ingredient, but for this, I’m all for up for it. I enjoyed them a lot! I kinda find salmon to be a fish with sweet meat but the good thing is that the mango sauce was on the sweet-tangy side. The mustard seeds also gave the sauce some texture and some added flavor too. The squid ink rice surprisingly tasted great with the salmon and the mango sauce. It was seriously an explosion of flavors in my mouth. 

Caribbean Shrimp Curry - simmered in coconut curry sauce with bell peppers and served with fried banana and steamed rice. This was such a rich and hearty stew with big bold flavors: coconut milk, curry and bell peppers. It easily transports you to the tropics. Caribbean curry powder is known to be loaded with cumin, coriander and intense spices that pack a flavorful punch. It was a great combination with plump, juicy and delicate shrimps that you can find in the stew. I would have love it more than usual if it was on the spicier side, this was a bit mild though. Also, I loved that it came with those toasted bananas since we all know that besides black beans, plantains are another Cuban staple. It is a truly decadent dish that could easily transport you to the tropics.

Chuletas de Pollo con Arroz Mejicano - delicious chicken breast topped with sautéed onions and served with Mexican style rice and garlic stewed tomatoes. Here’s another dish with so intense with all those flavors. Though some people don’t like eating chicken breast because it tends to be dry and bland, but this one was succulent and packed with distinctive taste that is warm and satisfying. The Mexican rice was a good pair for it as well.

Doble Cara Pizza Cubana - Quatro Quezo and Jamon Serano flavored pizzas that allows to enjoy two of Café Havana’s favorite pizza flavors in one pizza. Cuban cuisine also represents the melting pot of the island’s Spanish and some form of Italian influences which is very much apparent with in this pizza. I love both variety and the thin crust. By the way, you can order a whole pizza in Quatro Quezo or Jamon Serrano.

Guyaba Pie - exotic guava pie served warm with whipped cream on the side. Of course let’s not sleep on their “postres” aka deserts. Who would have known that I will ever eat guava in a pie? Can you believe? I can’t either. I’ve noticed that guava is also a big player in a lot of Cuban cuisines even in deserts. This freshly-baked and warm dessert is just like the good old apple pie but the guava filling is a metamorphosis of sweet and tangy.

Pudin de Pan - homemade Cuban version of bread pudding. First off, can I just say how pretty this desert is? I mean look at that glaze! If that doesn’t look appetizing to you, well, I don’t know what is. Every culture seems to have their own version of bread pudding, even in the Caribbean. This somehow had the consistency of flan. It was creamy, milky and I kind of tasted some hints of rum in there too.

Café Havana is quite a small restaurant compared to others that you can see at Greenbelt 3, but it gives you the atmosphere of a vintage establishments around Old Havana complete with a tropical garden vibes. The location is decorated with just enough vintage, Southwestern US and island life to make it feel culturally fused.  Btw, we all know that Cubans like their cigar and Café Havana has a small cigar room and also sells local and important ones and of course some Cuban cigars too.

Café Havana’s take on Cuban food is fierce, disorderly and has bold flavors that come together, creating a cuisine that sings and celebrates the Cuba’s diversity, color and history. It may be without clear definition, but Cuban cuisine delights all the senses. I truly enjoyed dining at Café Havana as it further piqued my interest for that trip to Cuba someday soon.

G/F Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, 
Makati City, Philippines
Contact No: 02 757-4370 / 757-4371 / 0917-552-2090
Website: ljcrestaurants.com.ph/cafe-havana
Facebook: www.facebook.com/pg/CafeHavanaPH
Instagram: www.instagram.com/cafehavanaph

For more information, complete menu and restaurant reviews, check out their Zomato profile: 
Cafe Havana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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