Of all things possibly associated with a 1950’s nouveau riche bedroom community in Havana a bistro worthy of a Parisian sidewalk seems a bit out of place. However in the Kohly neighborhood of Havana, just a few blocks from the Almendras river, the Bistro Havana Kohly is proving that being a bistro isn’t about location.
Almost a year old, this might be one of the best kept secrets of the paladar club in Cuba’s capital.
The houses that populate the Kohly neighborhood were built in the same decade as the old Fords, Chevrolets, and GMs cruising the potholed streets of Havana.
Kohly’s Caribbean mansions are analogous to the old jalopies; some specimens are held together with shoestrings while their neighbor is magnificently restored.
The Bistro is of the latter group. The expansive elevated porch has been is cleverly designed to offer privacy while allowing a bird’s eye view of the street below. The subtle décor is a play on the supposed origin of the word “bistro”: taken from a popular brand of coffee liqueur served in reasonably priced European restaurants a hundred years ago. This explains the repetition of the coffee color two toned walls, table cloths, and even pillows. Yes, pillows. Post-dining siestas are permitted, and maybe necessary.
Inside is another scene all together. Dim lighting, a well-stocked bar, and few tables allow for intimate meals that easily stretch into a couple of after dinner rum cocktails.
The menu offers the over fed traveler local ingredients but with presentations you haven’t seen anywhere else in Havana.
If you are a food adventurer you probably won’t leave the starters on the first page. Our favorites were the Mediterranean Salad (octopus, calamari, clams, lobster, and shrimp served with picked-that-morning lettuce and tomatoes red enough to make lipstick jealous) and fried Camembert cheese with ciruela fruit sauce with just the right touch of tart. The prices are overly reasonable considering the quality, so don’t be shy about filling up on variety.
Gems inside the main course selection include the grilled pork “honey for Ochun” (in homage to Ochun, a Santeria deity). This dish offers the leanest cuts of the tenderest pork we have tasted on the island, so it is relatively guilt free. The surprisingly subtle sauce is a base of red wine, with hints of spicy mustard, churned butter, and honey. OK, not that guilt free.
Another keeper is the beef filet braided with thin strips of bacon and serrano ham. Welcome to flavor country.
If you are looking for a lighter bistro style lunch check out the sandwich menu. There are all sorts of fun things to put in a baguette such as slices slow grilled pork loin, onions sautéed in white wine, and homemade pickles. Thin crust pizzas are mainly pork themed, plus a 3 cheese delight (blue, goat, and gouda).
Finish everything off with a stroll around the Kohly neighborhood and see how contemporary Cubans live in what was once an exclusive enclave of the upper crust…and still is to a certain extent. Maybe after that you will have some room for dessert.
Bistro Habana Kohly is located at No. 2805 45th St, between 28 and 34, a 10 minute cab ride from the Hotel Melia Cohiba. Reservations at (07) 205-2616 or www.restaurantebistrohabana.com. Open 7 days a week with breakfast from 7am and full menu from 12pm to 12am.
Photos and text by Graham Sowa.