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[Dining Out]

A Boston chef explores Cuban cuisine

SIX YEARS AGO, I opened a restaurant called Chez Henri in Cambridge. Fulfilling a promise to its previous owner, I kept the name and the basic culinary concept French, but I gave the menu a distinctly Cuban slant. I loved the flavors and ingredients in Cuban cooking, though my knowledge of them came strictly from cookbooks.

All that changed recently when I had the rare chance to visit Cuba. Led by former congressman Chet Atkins, our group - all from Boston - included botanists, historians, a judge, a TV crew, and former undersecretary of agriculture Gus Schumacher. We were granted access to the " off-limits " island as part of a humanitarian mission sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

Contrary to popular belief, travel to Cuba is not actually prohibited by our government - it's just that, thanks to the Helms-Burton Act, you can't spend American dollars there. There is, however, no shortage of American currency floating around Cuba: it is a much-beloved destination for tourists from France, Germany, Italy, and Central and South America, who change their money into US dollars before they enter.

Each member of our group had his or her own idea of what to look for in the experience. My dream was to follow the Cuban food chain from the small private (vs. state) farms to the " free producers " (vs. state) markets to the wonderful in-home (vs. state) restaurants known as paladares.

I did not have high expectations. From all I'd been told, I figured the heart of Cuban cuisine stopped beating in 1959, the year of President for Life Fidel Castro's " revolution. " Suffice it to say that the development of local cuisine has been stagnant for more than 40 years. Imported supplies from the United States and elsewhere dried up because of trade embargos (and astronomical prices), and the state took control of many of the local ingredients associated with fine dining.

Equally disastrous, Cuba lost considerable financial support when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, beginning what Cubans now refer to as the " special period. " The economic crisis affected every aspect of Cuban life, including cuisine. Things are better now, but the current generation of Cuban cooks is in a rut from lack of culinary stimulation from America and most of Europe.

I had no delusions about the quality of state-operated restaurants in Cuba, but I was curious about paladares, the tiny restaurants that the state permits within private homes. Strangely, the name paladare was taken from a popular Brazilian soap opera called Vale Todo, whose main character opens a roadside eatery called El Paladare de Raquel.

Paladares serve no more than 12 people at a time, with menus limited to the foodstuffs the government allows them to serve, and they must pay a stiff monthly " fee " to Señor Castro for the luxury of doing business. But despite all the restrictions, they have been sweeping the island since 1996. Today, there are literally hundreds. I was keen to visit as many of these unique establishments as possible, and hoped to cook in one of them. Toward that end, I packed economy-size jars of spices like star anise and cumin to use as " gifts, " as such things are rare and very expensive in Cuba.

MOMENTS AFTER stepping off the plane in Havana, I headed for my first paladare, La Guarida, which is reputed to be the city's trendiest. Located in a mansion that was formerly home to an affluent island doctor, it's also where the movie Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed. Imagine my surprise when I found La Guarida in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in a crumbling building that now housed 15 families, none of whom could ever afford the lofty (by Cuban standards) $25-per-person tab for eating there. Nevertheless, photos of Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson, Danny Glover, and Matt Dillon hung on the walls - testimony to La Guarida's fabulousness. Even the queen of Spain had dropped in!

Starters at La Guarida included fresh red-snapper ceviche, tuna niçoise, and zesty gazpacho, followed by snapper with Creole sauce or lemon-butter sauce, pork a la plancha with a lemon-garlic adobo, and roasted chicken. Each entrée was served with black beans and rice, a culinary theme I would come to know well over the next seven days.

Aside from the paladares, I also wanted to see what was sold at the more than 300 " free producers " markets, which had sprung up since goods from Russia dwindled and Cuban farmers went back to growing for a livelihood. Most of the paladare chefs I asked said that they regularly shopped at these markets for the freshest foods, despite significantly higher prices.

On Sunday morning, I trooped to the free-producers market in central Havana. I was extremely impressed with the variety and quality of what I saw: tamarinds, ginger, yucca, cabbage, and potatoes of all kinds were piled on tables, and the smell of fresh guava permeated the air. The market was divided into two sections. The first offered produce raised by state-owned cooperatives. The other half sold produce brought in from private farms. In most cases, the more costly private veggies looked much more lush. One woman I spoke to said she'd been waiting since 4 a.m. to buy from a private farmer whose goods she preferred. Sanitary conditions in an adjacent bakery, however, turned my stomach, as did the butcher shop down the road, which sold only pork. There are state food inspectors in Cuba, but to what standards they hold merchants accountable I can only guess.

I was also fascinated by an old woman named Lucille, who sold medicinal herbs of every stripe. Cuban health care is quite modern and seems to combine the best of Western and holistic practices. Vaccinations against all manner of disease are provided to every citizen. That's the good news. The bad news is that, thanks to the revolution, a truck driver's salary is the same as a dentist's, so spending more on an organic head of lettuce is difficult for everyone. But signs of a market economy are everywhere.

The next night, we planned to splurge on a visit to the famous Tropicana. The entry fee was an extortionate $65, but who could resist the opportunity to get drunk on rum and Cokes in a legendary nightclub that's been operating continuously since 1939? Not this Irish-American. It was an unforgettable evening of live entertainment, rivaling Las Vegas with a circus-like atmosphere made all the more exotic by clouds of cigar smoke and literally hundreds of long-legged dancing girls. Fortunately, we had fueled up for the long night by eating at paladare La Fontana.

La Fontana's chef-owner once worked at a government hotel, and she knew her kitchen equipment. A six-burner Viking-type stove and two additional ovens made this the most impressive cooking facility I saw in Cuba. Sanitation was well above average, and the entire operation was extremely well run.

Somehow, lobster (one of several ingredients, including beef, that are served in government-run restaurants but forbidden in private ones) had made it onto the menu that evening, and we could have it one of three ways: salsa enchilada (with spicy tomato sauce), ajo (with pungent garlic sauce), or al pimiento negro y rum añejo (with black pepper and aged rum). I chose the latter, while swearing to the owner that I'd never tell a soul I'd tasted lobster on her premises. We ate sumptuously on tiny shrimp tartlets, coquetas de jamón (ham croquettes), and braised octopus with tomatoes, which was followed by the lobsters plus chorizo, garbanzo (chickpea) stew, and lamb ropa vieja. This last was made with mutton, as the flank steak usually called for in this traditional dish was, of course, verboten. For dessert, we had arroz con leche (rice pudding) and flan.

LEST YOU think we did nothing but eat, we did take in a baseball game, for $3 a head, in a stadium not much better or worse than Fenway Park, except that they were all out of " perros calientes " (hot dogs) the day we went, so we made do with strong Cuban coffee served in leaky, Sno-Cone-style cups. As at Fenway, there was much heckling of the players and umps.

Our tour also progressed into the countryside, and along the way we ate lunch in a state-run " cafeteria. " All small restaurants in Cuba are called cafeterias, and all serve hard liquor and employ sleepy musicians who rehash Buena Vista Social Club tunes ad nauseam. This al fresco cafeteria sat at the side of the national highway that traverses Cuba, in the province of Matanzas (down the road from the Bay of Pigs). We were reminded that we could order beef here, so we did. Traditional beef picadillo (with peas, peppers, and potatoes) came as a sort of Cuban bolognese sauce, served over excellent, slightly sticky rice. A sopa del caldoza (country vegetable soup) and a refreshing salad of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers over chiffonade of lettuce rounded out the meal, which cost us approximately $16 each.

The cost included alcoholic beverages (as always) and, in this case, proximity to a virtual zoo of caged animals on the patio, from snakes and alligators to monkeys and goats. It was Rainforest Café in the flesh.

Later, we headed to the small city of Trinidad (not to be confused with the country), a living museum known both for its well-preserved 16th- and 17th-century churches, left behind when the sugar trade died, and for its frenetic nightlife. In a surreal moment, our bus came to a brief, unscheduled stop just outside the border, where hundreds of thousands of poisonous red and black crabs, stretching for nearly half a mile, covered the highway while vultures circled menacingly above. They had laid their eggs in a lagoon on one side of the road, and were scurrying back to the ocean on the other. Undaunted, our driver pressed onward, and the sound of crab shells crunching against the tires of the bus remains vivid.

Arriving in Trinidad, we checked in to Playa Ancón, a pastel-accented, Czech-built hotel strictly for tourists, which sits on a lovely sand beach. Once settled, we had to choose between having dinner at the hotel (pasta with one of two sauces, which resembled mayonnaise and ketchup, respectively) and reserving at the nearby paladare Davimart. The choice was clear, so we stopped by Davimart in the afternoon to place our dinner order. It's not such an odd requirement: this way, the chef knows in advance how much food to purchase at the market that day in order to feed his customers adequately.

We started with the ubiquitous tomato-cucumber-lettuce salad, served in a lovely outdoor garden that was hidden behind a nondescript storefront façade. It was followed by a simple grilled red snapper with salsa Creole, pork cutlets in adobo, and once again the forbidden lobster, this time in a citrus-and-garlic-butter sauce.

The chef obliged me when I asked to see the kitchen, which was divided into two parts. In the prep area, an old woman peeled plantains in medieval conditions, without running water or electric light. The second part, obviously the cooking area, contained a broken stove and a diner-style griddle on which almost everything was cooked.

I knew immediately that cooking here would offer the challenge I had dreamed of. Chef David (I never learned his surname) was a former auto mechanic who had switched careers a year before to improve his family's income by opening a restaurant. Warm and welcoming, like most of the Cubans we met, he graciously allowed me to return the following night to cook at his side. My contribution to the cultural exchange was to show David a lighter and more flavorful way to prepare a meal identical to the one I'd eaten the night before. But first, I presented David with some spices and a white chef's coat, which seemed to please him no end.

My Cuban chef experience began that day at an organic farm reached by bus. There, Gus Shumacher described our mission to the farmer, then got down on the ground with me to pick what we wanted for the evening meal. Beets, Chinese long beans, radishes, plantains, pimento chilies, and daikon looked especially appealing. After watching us labor, the farmer tallied the cost of our bounty. Fifty cents! Dumbstruck as only an American tourist in a Third World country can be, I handed him $3, and left before he could protest.

I began with a marinade spiked with my US-bought spices, into which I tossed pork cutlets and some forbidden lobster. Later on, I grilled and drizzled them with fresh-squeezed sour-orange juice. I marinated red snapper with lemon and coriander, then made a sauce of reduced white wine, orange juice, garlic, ginger, and star anise, puréed with ultra-fresh papaya to make a flavorful coulis. A salad was made of orange segments and my hand-harvested beets. Before leaving paladare Davimart, I promised to send chef David some knives and a cutting board from Boston.

FORGING AHEAD to the industrial city of Cienfuegos, we checked in to a beautifully restored colonial-era hostelry called Hotel de la Unión, and set off via horse-drawn jitney to paladare Ache.

We spotted its bright red neon sign above an appealing bamboo bar, and went inside to a '50s-style aquamarine interior.

The owners, a former forestry engineer and his wife, a former economist, greeted us warmly and provided excellent service throughout our meal. They warned us, however, that not only were beef and lobster off limits to them, but so was chicken. They also mentioned that the government was forcing paladares in that region to close by upping taxes to prohibitive levels. Ache was squeezed to the tune of $800 per month. Those who couldn't ante up had shut down, so that only three of 25 paladares that had been operating in 1997 remained in business. Ache managed to stay afloat by charging $27 to 10 people each night of the week. Cheap for us, but high by Cuban standards.

Ache provided a worthy repast, beginning with a salad of perfectly ripe tropical fruits enhanced with a tangy lime dressing, followed by the usual tomato-cucumber-lettuce salad and our choice of three entrées: robalo cordon bleu (a local fish layered with Kraft yellow cheese and mortadella), grilled English cross-cut cured pork, and pork a la plancha jazzed up with ham and cheese. In Cienfuegos, black beans were a no-show on the plate, but we didn't miss them.

BEFORE CASTRO, there was good food in Cuba, but then it vanished because the people who could cook left the country. Now the chefs I met are trying to find their way back to the old cuisine. American chefs have much to teach this generation of Cubans about healthy, fresh cooking, but they can teach us about a lot of other things.

My plane for home departed at 3 a.m., so I made the most of my final day in Cuba by toasting Papa Hemingway with a daiquiri in Floridita, his favorite watering hole on Calle Obispo, the Cuban Newbury Street. That evening, our blowout farewell dinner was held in another old mansion in upscale Vedado, this time with candles, linen, crystal, and silver. Course after course of excellent food and Cuban and Spanish wines was passed, and I felt as if I didn't want to leave. In the earliest hours of the morning, I smoked my final Cuban cigar with a cold beer in the airport lounge.

Paul O'Connell, a Boston native and a chef for the past 17 years, is the chef/owner of Cambridge's Chez Henri, located at 1 Shepard Street, just north of Harvard Square (617-354-8980). He can be reached at

Issue Date: April 26-May 3, 2001