Restaurant Review: A Taste of Havana in London
By Shaun Hutchinson
Hidden in Waterloo, with the Young and Old Vic as near neighbours, is the vibrant Cubana restaurant.
Look for the Cuban themed mural on building’s gabled wall. Or listen out for the distinctive music - live bands Thursday to Saturday - and the hum of conservations. It’s that kind of place.
Although the restaurant is set out on two levels, with a couple of balcony areas (for two diners at most) overlooking the lower level, it’s not spacious.
Neither is this the place for a romantic heart to heart; intimacy is not a feature – you’ll have to raise your voice. But Cubana does give an idea of the flavours and atmosphere of the Caribbean’s largest island.
The interior and décor is revolutionary chic. Walls adorned with AK47s, Cuban flags, murals of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and photos of Cuban scenery compliment plain - some may say rickety - wooden tables and chairs.
But this prompts memory of Cuba – rough and ready maybe; and those who have travelled to the island will know that this adds to the authentic feel.
Cuban food is a fusion of Spanish and West African – like its culture and people.
Throw in Spain’s North African influences and those of French planters escaping Haiti’s slave rebellion and you get an idea of the range of ingredients.
Those familiar with Caribbean food will have no problems here. Variations of rice and peas with kidney beans or black beans are staples, sometimes as a separate stew with white rice.
Chicken and pork are also regulars as well as plantain, sweet potato and fresh salads – with sliced mango and oranges.
Cubana says its dishes are freshly prepared with free-range chicken and eggs, and pork reared outdoors in natural healthy conditions. And if you want to check there’s even an open hatch to the kitchen if you want to see the chefs at work.
From the two curved bars - where staff are busy but friendly - mango, guava, passion fruit and oranges find their way into smoothies and freshly-squeezed juices.
For those who prefer a stronger drink classic Cuban cocktails - mojitos, daiquiris and margaritas - relax the atmosphere even more. On my visit I had the mojito cocktail - strictly for research purposes of course.
My dining companion joined me as well. We agreed that more white rum would have improved the old favourite. A jug at £13.95 also seems been better value for money than a large glass at £4.75.
It’s the food that counts though and it’s here where Cubana’s eight years of experience tells.
If diners want starters there is a wide range, mostly tapas style food, but we skipped. Maybe on the next visit.
My main course was congri santiago - a casserole dish from Santiago de Cuba, where the influence of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands is strong.
This is obvious in the spicy meal of red beans casseroled in pork, chorizos (sausages), tomatoes, vegetables and chillies, with white rice.
Although the helpings could have been more generous the dish - with a fresh salad of lettuce, sliced red and green peppers, tomatoes and fruits - was good.
My dining partner’s choice of pollo criollo (a chicken dish) is a Cubana favourite and it’s easy to see why. Supersize chicken portions marinated in orange, sherry, onions and garlic with fried plantain and rice and peas would satiate any hunger.
Despite a longish wait for a table and for our food - though the staff were apologetic and friendly - if you want a fairly genuine idea of Cuban food and culture this is a good place to start.
Cubana Restaurant – 48 Lower Marsh, Waterloo London SE1 7RG (44 207 928 8778)
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's theatre and food critic.
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