Leaving the main road clouded with exhaust from rattling Oldsmobiles, Chevvies, Buicks et al, I dodged a group of kids whacking baseballs to head down a side street. A heavy-looking bouncer swung open an ironwork gate and, this being Cuba, flashed a big smile.
Thus I entered San Cristobal, a spanking new paladar (private restaurant) that is a sign of President Raúl Castro’s slow relaxing of Cuba’s entrepreneurial constrictions. Havana’s top places have always been located way out in the smart residential areas of Miramar and Vedado. Havana Vieja, the tourists’ theatre-set, has a handful, but here in Centro, the peeling, commercial in-between, there was nothing. Well, almost nothing; in fact, a few blocks north was the most iconic paladar of them all, La Guarida, still living on its fame as the location for Cuba’s big 1994 hit film, Fresa y Chocolate. But time moves on, and although my lunch there was excellent, I wanted somewhere new.
Seated on an art deco sofa in a pistachio-green anteroom, I was invited to read the menu. The waiter, in immaculate white shirt and bow tie, apologised that for the moment the menu is only in Spanish – the restaurant is just three months old. Although it made a stark decorative contrast, I had the choice between a sunny, leafy patio and a shady inner world of art nouveau nostalgia in the three salons. A zebra-skin, piles of leather-bound books, chandeliers, lace table-covers, antique furniture and framed vintage photos all led me back in time.
Food-wise it was another story, as the charming chef-owner, Carlos Cristobal Marquez, has travelled all over, from Mexico City and Brazil to Madrid and Milan. This showed in the balanced gazpacho, velvety tortilla, tender lobster and delicate crème caramel that I consumed – all totalling about £25. I’ll go again, that’s for sure.