Is Los Nardos the Best Restaurant in Havana, Cuba?

February 5, 2012

in International

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Los Nardos

Paseo del Prado 563
Havana, Cuba
~ no website ~

Story & Photos by:

Les Noteworthy: Senior Staff Writer

Food & Service: Always in pursuit of the 5-star dining experience has led me to some very unusual restaurant venues, in some very unusual places. Los Nardos is certainly one of those! Located in an old building, directly across the street from the Capitol Building in Old Havana, Cuba, Los Nardos features no exterior signage, neon lights, banners or any of the traditional indications that there is a restaurant at that location.

It's Always Busy at Los Nardos but Worth the Wait

In fact, if you did not know to look there, you would certainly pass it by without a thought, unless you noticed the line outside. This single item is the only clue to the restaurant’s location, and there is always a line outside!

Located on the first floor (what most Americans call the second…one flight up from the street level) this was an unexpected treat as a food critic. Totally unassuming, totally non-descript and practically invisible, this eatery doesn’t actually cater to the tourist market, but is frequented more by locals than anyone else. The interior décor is fabulously rustic, a throwback to earlier days, possibly in the ‘30’s or 40’s. It is decorated in all dark wood, mostly hand carved, with a pair of massive gliders at the top of the stairs, and a few chairs to accommodate guests waiting for tables. There is a baby grand piano at one corner of the long, slender dining room, sadly in need of a good tuning, but none-the-less, adding a quaint and acceptably imperfect charm to the atmosphere.

One side wall featured a glass case filled with all shapes and sizes of trophies, from sporting events, restaurant events, and some there for no apparent reason. Directly above the trophy case, was a series of wine racks, accessed by a ladder and elevated scaffold. This, too, was all in hand-hewn dark hardwoods. The opposite wall featured heavy red draperies, certainly absorbing the ambient sounds, while adding a soft elegance to the room. From the ceiling was hung an elaborate interconnected carving which occupied more than half the length of the dining room. At one end was a glass-enclosed “show” kitchen, where all the food preparation, cooking, plating and even dish washing was visible to every guest in the dining room. At the opposite end of the narrow space was the bar, featuring a 20+ seat bar, a few small tables, and numerous scurrying servers, hustling beverages to their tables.

Once seated, my guest and I were immediately greeted by a pleasant young man, clad in black shirt, slacks and apron, who asked us if we would prefer Spanish or English. We replied English, as he lit the single candle in the middle of our wooden table. He continued in perfect English, offering beverages, perhaps a selection from the wine list, and assured us that however he could attend do our needs, he would be there to do so. I browsed the wine list which was largely Chilean and Spanish, only 3 bottles of French wine, 2 Argentinian Malbecs and that was about it. Sadly, they offered no wines by the glass, as many Cuban restaurants do. We selected a bottle of 2009 Castilliero del Diablo, a Chilean Cabernet by Concha y Toro, a multi-level but quality producer. This was one of the higher priced bottles on their list, which featured wines starting at $12 and reaching as high as $40. We also ordered 2-500 ml bottles of mineral water, one for each of us.  Our server brought the wine, left it (unopened) on the table and went off to attend to other duties. Our “new” server” introduced himself as Jorge, and spoke English as perfectly as our initial server. He proceeded to open the wine, and poured a taste for me. It was lovely, and a perfect temperature, as well.

Lots of Delicious Pork

We browsed the menu and sipped our wine, both complex and delicious. The menu was massive, yet contained many items that were slightly repetitious offering the identical protein with a variety of sauces. They featured many delicious local side dishes and starters, which were more designed as sharing plates than individual dishes. I asked our server what he would recommend, and he replied that the restaurant was known for its quality of meat, local “langostinos” and of course, the Cuban staple, pork. We decided to share a starter that Jorge suggested, which was a stew of Fried Chick Peas, with bacon, sausage and ham. My guest selected the Mojo Marinated Lobster, while I chose the Roasted Pork Leg.

We were assured that our selections “would not be disappointing for us”, which is a nice way of saying that we’d like our meals!  Our starter arrived in short order, less than a half glass of wine later, and was certainly large enough for 2 to enjoy. I’m not certain how the “Fried” quality was incorporated into the dish, as it was clearly a stewed mixture, none-the-less, it was incredibly delicious! The unique flavors of the chorizo sausage, the smokiness of the bacon and the aromatic additions of onions, garlic and cumin complimented the tender, yet firm chick peas. It was so good!

As we used some of the complimentary bread to absorb every delicious drop of the sauce, another server arrived with our entrée courses. Talk about fast food! He positioned the plates carefully before each of us, removed the appetizer plate from the center of the table, pour us each a small amount of wine, then water, nodded his head and left. Perfect attentiveness, and amazing timing on the food service.

My guest’s lobster entrée featured large chunks of lobster, sautéed with peppers, onions and scallions and dressed in an aromatic mojo. The garlic and cumin aromas of the mojo were hypnotic. The dish was served with moros, short for Moros y Christianos…the local term for Black Beans and Rice, and fried banana slices, which were a lot like plantain chips, lightly salted and a bit sweeter. The lobster itself, was delicious. Tender yet firm in texture, and the colorful accents of the onions, peppers and scallions, added additional flavors to the dish. My entrée was served with the same sides (moros and fried bananas) and featured several huge, thick slices of roasted pork. It was topped with mojo marinated sautéed onions. It was massive in size and equally as delicious. However, most of the meat was less that piping hot, in fact some of the slices were on the cool side, possibly because the meat was either pre-sliced, or the roast wasn’t sitting under a heat lamp. The onions were hot, as were the moros, but it was still delicious! The meat was reminiscent of thick slices of roast turkey in texture and was fairly dry, moistened slightly by the mojo on the onions.

The flavors of both dishes were very good, while the portion size of the lobster was considerably smaller than the pork, which is understandable, based upon item cost, and the portion size of the pork was really far too much!  Interestingly, the flavors of the two mojos were noticeably different, I found more lime and perhaps a small amount of vinegar in the onions, while cumin, garlic and lime were the main flavors in the lobster. Suitably full, our plates and remaining utensils were cleared from the table, and almost immediately, Jorge returned offering dessert. We declined and asked for our bill, which he said he would put together for us. We finished our wine, and waited for his return. Reviewing the bill, we both chuckled at the minimal costs for such massive amounts of food and wine. It was amazingly inexpensive, to say the least! The bottle of wine was more expensive than all the food, and it was not that expensive!

Happy, pleasantly full and thrilled at the low cost of the dining experience we had enjoyed, we left Los Nardos exactly as we found it…a non-descript building on a busy main street, with no signage, but a tell-tale line awaiting their turn to enjoy a great meal at a very reasonable price!

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