Eating in homes a fine way to dine in Havana

Family-run restaurants earn mention on itineraries.

HAVANA — Chugging along in a cobbled together 1953 Dodge taxi (vintage US cars are common here), we drive past Art Deco buildings and colonial-style mansions, a reminder of Havana’s past grandeur. Now, roads are worn and structures are crumbling from neglect. We ride down the Malecón, the road winding along the Gulf of Mexico, and leave shabby neighborhoods behind as we make our way to La Cocina de Lilliam. This is one of the city’s best paladares, a privately owned restaurant in a home, which is a legal enterprise here.

Paladares are scattered all over Havana in houses and apartments tucked into residential side streets. Some are listed in guidebooks, but most people discover them by word of mouth. In the mid-1990s, the government allowed Cubans to set up these small home restaurants, with some restrictions, including the rule that only family members could work there. Now, they can hire cooks and waiters.

The food is considered better than in regular restaurants, which the government runs. Stews, roast chicken, and fish in a garlicky saute of onions and bell peppers might appear, along with baked root vegetables and black beans and rice, all reflecting a mildly seasoned Caribbean cuisine influenced by the culinary traditions of the Europeans, Africans, and Chinese who first settled on the island.

Dinners at a paladar, which cost about $20, might be served in a simple kitchen or dining room. Exceptional establishments, such as La Cocina de Lilliam, cost about $40. The food is more elaborate, and might have an inventive twist, served in formal garden settings or in antique filled rooms.

Food is just one part of a larger experience that begins with locating the eatery, sometimes off-the-beaten path, and then meeting the family members who run the restaurant. La Cocina de Lilliam is in an opulent Spanish colonial in the upscale Miramar district. A large wooden door opens into a garden of goddess statues, ficus, pink blossom and palm trees, staghorn and asparagus ferns, and bubbling fountains. Heavy wooden tables stand in a ceramic tiled patio. Owners Lilliam Dominguez, 68, a former dress designer, and her husband, Luis Ulloa, 72, inherited the house and refashioned a section into a restaurant 15 years ago. Lilliam became the cook and Luis the manager.

Our meal begins with a mojito, the iconic Cuban rum cocktail with lime, sugarcane juice, and spearmint leaves. Aromatic bowls of creamy asparagus soup come next, with rounds of bread to dip into a platter of creamed chickpeas. Fried plantains served in a basket are perfectly slender and crisp.

Entrees follow: plates of tender, thinly sliced duck covered with sauteed red peppers; roast chicken with rice; Lilliam’s reinvention of the classic roba vieja, made with lamb instead of beef. One dish makes us laugh — a lightly fried pargo, or red snapper, on a plate with a live goldfish swimming in a saucer (for decoration).

We finish with a dense chocolate mousse and a glass of Havana Club dark rum. At the end of the evening as we go to leave, Luis welcomes us into a private living room, and shows us photographs of Lilliam as a striking young woman. Art Deco lamps and 1950s-style adornments evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era gone by.

La Cocina de Lilliam, Calle 48 No. 1311 (between 13 and 15), Miramar, Havana,, +-53-7-209-6514


About Particular Cuba
Particular Cuba organizes travel to Cuba. Hotel booking, car rental, package tours, excursions, flights to Cuba.

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