El Litoral. As its name suggests, it is close to water. Havana´s youngest contender for top dining experience is across the street is Havana´s picturesque sea wall, the Malecón. Just beyond this iconic Cuban landmark are deep blue waters of the Straits of Florida...where your dinner was probably swimming earlier that morning.
The interior design of El Litoral evokes imagery of being in the galley of a luxury yacht. Wood paneling, nautical décor, portholes, and dim lighting fix the mind on a marine theme.
The menu picks up where the décor leaves off, so come here hungry for seafood.
The fish options are unrivaled in Cuba. Most days 7-10 species are offered, all saltwater from mild white meat snapper to dark king mackerel. The menu offers various innovative preparations, including a Cuban fusion of fillet with Caribbean almond crust, steamed yucca, and spinach with traditional Cuban mojo sauce of lemon and oil.
My normal test for quality of food preparation in Cuba is ordering a shrimp dish. In my experience Cubans are notorious for overcooking meats. Shrimp is perhaps the least forgiving protein to have ever met a hot fire for too long, so these crustaceans are my litmus test.
My pan seared shrimp in a coconut curry came out juicy and tender. The cranberry rice pilaf served as the perfect medium to soak up what was left of the curry.
If you have any doubts about which fish is best to choose Chef Alain Rivas will give you faultless advice. After all, he is good friends with the fisherman that keeps the kitchen stocked, who happens to be the owner of the restaurant.
While the owner is busy fishing Chef Alain has been given free reign to run an industrial kitchen to keep up with customer demand.
Most paladares in Havana squeeze their kitchens into the smallest area possible to maximize table space. El Litoral not only has a full-sized kitchen for its main menu, but also a kitchen for its buffet table (known as the mesa fria), and a bakery that produces all in house bread and desserts.
The buffet style mesa fria is perhaps the best fine dining lunch option in Havana. With an ample selection of locally grown vegetables, plus rarities in Cuba such as imported asparagus and artichoke hearts, along with a selection of Spanish and Cuban hams, octopus in olive oil, and blue fin tuna prepared tataki style to name a few of the over 40 selections.
If the inside of El Litoral is the ships galley then its shaded porch is the deck.
Natural sunlight filters through sail like canvas shading and bounces off of the natural limestone tile. Sea breeze mixes with delicious olfactory sensations from the kitchen. The glass wall facing the malecón leaves your view of the Cuban coastline unspoiled and unobstructed.
El Litoral is open 7 days a week from 12pm to 12am at 161 Malecon between K and L in Vedado, La Havana. Call 7-833-2201 for reservations or visit www.ellitoralhabana.com. Complementary valet parking, porch, patio and interior seating with private dining and catering by prior arrangement. A bar and music venue is set to open in the basement sometimes in the next year.
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Photos and text by Graham Sowa.