El Cocinero is just as much about the Havana arts scene as it is about food. Built into the same building as the Cuban Art Factory, this paladar pushes the limits of private industry and government cooperation in an atmosphere offering landmark views and enthusiasm for a variety of mediums.
Art Factory and El Cocinero Exterior
El Cocinero is the undertaking of rock, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban fusion musician X-Alfonso. X-Alfonson´s popularity makes El Cocinero something like the Hard Rock Café of Havana.
The restaurant makes use of half of a 100 year old, and long abandoned, cooking oil factory along the Almendares River between the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods.
The factory´s landmark 200 foot tall red brick chimney is now home to a spiral staircase that ascends to an intimate dining room. Subtle lighting, black and white photography, and smooth jazz over a Bose sound system to set the mood. For larger groups a second floor outdoor patio can accommodate 40-plus guests with plenty of space to move around.
Terrace at Night
The menu in the main dining room is much like X-Alfonson´s music: a focused fusion of rhythms, melodies and harmonies drawn from national and international sources alike. Lamb curry, made with Cuban lamb and its distinctive gamey taste is served with coal roasted naan. The locally sourced duck reflects a saltier aquatic taste that blends oh-so-well with reduced bitter Caribbean orange sauce. Don´t feel shy about ordering the seak filet, it is cooked to order (say vuelta-vuelta, which means “turn-turn” if you like it rare).
Continue up the staircase and you will find a roof terrace in the shadow of the old chimney that offers a Cuban flavored menu of comida-criolla and grilled fare with an extensive cocktail menu.
The Cuban crowd appreciates the local decorating subtleties such as the use of the same fiberglass molded chairs that are ubiquitous in high schools and universities around the country. This is an ideal place to take in the sunset…and get the night started.
2nd Floor Patio at El Cocinero
The other half of the cooking oil factory is the Cuban Art Factory, an ambitious state sponsored project that is giving artists more creative control than they have enjoyed in decades.
The Art Factory makes up the main body of the factory floor separated into various rooms, or naves. Simultaneous activities include film screenings, theater, live music, poetry, dance and a series of rotating art exhibitions create a high energy atmosphere that begins at 8pm and ends in the wee hours of the morning Thursday through Sunday. The mainly Cuban crowd represents all strata of society and culture, there is even a burgeoning hipster scene.
Fabrica De Art at Night
If El Cocinero and the Cuban Art Factory were in any other city they would be the revitalized centerpiece of an up and coming arts district. Since things move at a slower pace in Havana the surrounding buildings have yet to be turned into loft apartments and lunch bistros, however it does not strain the imagination to see the future of this part of Havana.
El Cocinero is located at 26th Street between 11th and 13th in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Just look for the big smoke stack. Opens daily 6pm-12am, telephone 7832-2355. Make reservations for the dining room or rooftop terrace, this place is popular. www.elcocinerohabana.com. The Havana Art Factory (La Fabrica de Arte Cubano) 2CUC cover, Thursday-Sunday 8pm-4am.
Photos and text by Graham Sowa.