Walking into 304 O’Reilly from the humid, congested streets of Old Havana is more of an escape than an entrance. Good air-conditioning, early Golden Project played softly over a Bose sound system, and a cocktail menu that goes way beyond daiquiris and mojitos are all reminders that Cuba is quickly developing a diversified social scene.
The street’s Anglo name itself is a stand out in the once-Spanish colonial city of Old Havana. The anomaly is thanks to Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irish mercenary who led the Spanish in reoccupying the city after it was held by the British for a short while in 1763. Leave it to the Irish to never miss an opportunity to stick it to the Brits.
Billed as a Gin Bar and Restaurant, 304 O’Reilly has been trying to stretch the imagination of Havana’s avant-garde food scene for the past year (their first major accomplishment was offering a menu that does not include rice and beans).
Normally a hot cream of pumpkin soup isn’t a craving inspired by the violent Caribbean sun and humidity. However, when served with fresh cilantro and Cuban blue cheese in a well climatized room you might find your taste buds are more welcoming to the idea.
The “malangas empingadas” (literally: badass malangas) is an atypical preparation of a common Cuban tuber. First boiled then sautéed and spiced up with paprika, they are finished off with a mixture of soy sauce/oyster sauce and topped with raw sliced onion and fresh chopped herbs. Show most traditional Cuban cooks what these chefs have done with their malangas and they will come away baffled to the point of taking offense.
As if trying to channel a kinship with the fellow island nation of Japan, 304 O’Reilly has recently started incorporating some takes on dishes from the land of the rising sun. Their Ta Taki Atun (grill seared tuna left raw in the interior) violates the long held (and usually overdone) Cuban custom of cooking meat thru and thru.
The “Sopa Fukuchima” is a perhaps less than politically correct name inspired by the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi Japanese nuclear power plant disaster in 2011. Using miso soup and fresh seaweed as the stock the chef at 304 O’Reilly has added peeled shrimp, chunks of red snapper, and crab claw with a soft-boiled egg floating in the middle of it all. No sign of disaster here, just a light tasty soup.
The Japanese theme has extended into the cocktail selection. For example, the Samurai Bloody Mary is served with plenty greenery and veggies around the rim plus a couple slices raw tuna in between the ice cubes. For folks who like a less meaty drink the Kentucky Mojito pays homage to the newfound relations between Cuba and the United States by daring to make a mojito with Jack Daniels Whiskey from the American heartland.
Being a gin bar there are a number of traditional and house cocktails that incorporate this underused spirit in otherwise rum soaked Cuba. If any British are still sore about losing this prime piece of real estate to the Spanish and their Irish soldier of fortune at least they can mull it over with a properly made gin and tonic.
While 304 O'Reilly might not feel like the tourist book Cuba, the trained eye will notice the portrait of the late Juan Formell of Los Van Van fame, an original film can from director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's feature Memories of Underdevelopment; even rural Cuba gets a shout out with a wooden ox yolk (painted hot-pink) hanging above the door. Even with demands to cater to a more international and globalized clientel Cuba will never give up on reminding you where you are.
304 O’Reilly is at the same address (between Habana and Aguiar streets in Old Havana). Open from 12pm to 12am daily there is only seating for about 30 people so reservations are a must. Call 5264 4725 or 5305 6150 to get a table. Most weekend nights the party spills out into the street (you can order drinks from the sidewalk) if you want to show up on a whim.
Photos and Text by Graham Sowa.