CAFE EL MERCURIO
Lonja del Comercio, Plaza de San Francisco de Asís
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Cuba
Tel: +53 7 860 6188
Reviewed by: Les Noteworthy
Food: Service: Located on the Plaza of the Abbey of St. Francis of Assisi in Old Havana, on the ground level of the former Commerce Trade Building, El Mercurio features all of the required components for a successful restaurant anywhere in the world.
This charming locale offers breakfast, lunch and dinner service, indoor and patio seating, welcoming decor, ample window seating (for people watching), a well selected menu, generous portions, reasonable prices, attentive service and good food!
The building itself is worth mentioning, as each of its six floors has a different style of window, typical of Art Deco period architecture. Located atop the unique structure is a statue of the god of commerce, Mercury…hence the restaurant’s name, El Mercurio! Need we say more? Well, of course we do!
Good food for the international diner is often difficult to find in Cuba. The staples are there, but quite often the flavors are not. The presentations are often lackluster, but the prices are reasonable. In many restaurants, exciting just isn’t printed on the menu or delivered to your table. But let’s think about this…Cuban people generally don’t dine out. It’s too expensive for the average Cuban. If they do, they are more likely go to a friend’s Palladar, a local “home based” restaurant, which tend to produce the best and most authentic tasting dishes around.
Since a real emphasis on tourism has only been popular for the past few years, the urgency to develop quality fine dining establishments to meet demands the of a growing international
tourism trade hasn’t been high on the government’s list of social priorities. None-the-less, these kinds of establishments do, in fact, exist!
Having walked by Cafe El Mercurio on numerous occasions, I finally decided to make the stop and give it a try. I am glad that I did! It is a lovely, charming place with a very personable staff. They act appreciative and work in a timely manner…and the food was quite good!
My guest and I settled into a window-side booth and began searching the menu for interesting dishes. It was conveniently printed in Spanish and English, which many restaurants offer for the international diner. The server approached the table, informed us of the daily specials and after discussing which wines they didn’t have, we selected a bottle that they did actually have in stock. This was a trying process, because despite having a large and impressive multi-national wine list, all except two of the listed white wines were out of stock! We opted for red, as more were in stock than not. The server was very apologetic about so many white wines being out of stock, saying that many things are difficult to obtain in Cuba. My immediate thought was to reprint the wine list, but I didn’t volunteer that. We selected a bottle of Rioja Crianza, by Joan Sarda, from Penedes in Spain. This wine is Tempranillo based, and is aged at least one year in oak, then rested for at least another year in the bottle before sale. It is lighter than Cabernet, while larger than Pinot Noir. It was full of fruit, yet dry and clean in the finish.
After receiving the wine, we selected appetizers and entrees. The server disappeared, promptly returning with a basket of warm bread and a side of soft butter. Warm bread is always best when served with room temperature butter. More restaurants should pay attention to this little service pointer! Service was notably attentive and prompt, with our starters arriving within minutes of us ordering them.
Quality, presentation and taste were abundant in both our selections. I enjoyed a Lobster Cocktail, similar to a classic Shrimp Cocktail, and served in a cocktail glass, rather than a martini glass. It offered a bounty of local lobster meat tossed
(not smothered) in tasty cocktail sauce, with a lime wheel. My guest enjoyed a tuna salad…yes, tuna salad! The delicious Cuban take on the traditional. It was served on a lettuce cup, featuring large chunks of freshly caught local tuna, diced crisp vegetables, aromatic herbs, lightly tossed with mayonnaise and garnished with cilantro and lime. Unconventionally traditional, but delicious!
Entrees arrived within 5 minutes of our starters being cleared, which to me, says perfect timing, teamwork and communication between server and kitchen.
My guest had opted for the daily special, local Lobster tail with jumbo shrimp. This was magnificent, not to mention huge! The lobster tail was at least 10 ounces, the meat pulled from the shell before roasting, and served with 3 (head-on) U-12 jumbo shrimp. It was amazing!
I had selected a Cuban standard, roast pork loin with malanga (tarot root) purée, vegetables and Cuban Mojo. This too, was a large portion, featuring two hefty slices of the slow roasted pork loin, moistened by the hypnotic aroma of the Mojo (garlic, onion, cumin and citrus juices). The malanga purée was not particularly tasty, reminding me a little bit of melting plastic, but apparently prized among locals. I prefer tarot root baked or fried as chips. The vegetables were perfectly cooked, and both dishes were artfully plated on sculpted black glass plates, garnished with a dusting of dried herbs and black pepper.
We enjoyed the dishes, the wine and when the feast had ended, were totally shocked by complimentary espresso and / or cappuccino, which may have been as an “apology” for the white wine issue.
Now as a rule, I don’t reveal costs of meals, but in this case, it is worth mentioning. Two starters, two entrees, a bottle of wine, coffee after dinner and gratuity, was under US$30 per person. It was an delicious adventure at a reasonable cost. While the staff was not well versed in English, as they are in many other Havana restaurants, they tried their best to communicate as well as the language barrier would allow. I genuinely appreciate this effort on their part!
Havana dining does not have to be drudgerous, expensive or boring. It certainly can be all of these if you go out to dinner in this town frequently enough. Good food indeed abounds, you just need to get out there and explore! Cafe El Mercurio is a location that offers most diners a good quality meal for reasonable rates, attentive and timely service, an excellent location in the heart of Old Havana, live music (with musicians selling CDs of their performances). Café el Mercurio is a restaurant I will certainly re-visit on my next trip to Havana!
As with many stories, I ask myself…
Did I enjoy my meal?
The answer is unquestionably, yes.
Would I return?
Again, the answer is yes!
Would I recommend this restaurant to others?
Again, yes is the answer!