Restaurant Review: El del Frente, Havana
When planning Cuba, friends and colleagues were swift to advise low food expectations and strongly recommended making early reservations at the best restaurants in Havana to avoid disappointment. Travel guides re-iterated underwhelming dishes; Cuban cuisine had suffered from the 'special period' reducing needs to mere survival and persisting state ownership of restaurants had stifled creativity.
A self-confessed foodie, my Havana research launched into overdrive. After compiling a list of 32 restaurants for only 3 days, I had this covered. El del Frente, O'Reilly 303 was a top choice and I was determined to get this right from my first meal. I was not disappointed. It was good, oh so good.
El del Frente translates literally to 'the one in front' in homage to O'Reilly 304, the facing restaurant. With matching owners, brothers José Carlos and Julio Imperatori, these sibling restaurants are a strong indication of the emerging Cuban food scene and far from being low, my expectations soared high. Established after O'Reilly 304 could no longer contain its popularity, the team spilled across the street resulting in El del Frente: A hip, charming younger brother that has flourished in its own right.
Boasting much the same menus and a similar drinks selection, it was the promise of an airy roof terrace that sealed the deal between the two O'Reillys. After Havana Day 1 in glorious sunshine and intense humidity, I was ready to sample good food, in a great atmosphere, with a cocktail or two in hand.
Arriving early to the party - hungry from skipping lunch - we nabbed the last balcony spot with a view stretching down the narrow streets of Old Havana. While the interior was light and spacious, this was clearly the place to be. My foodie fears subsided, surrounded by groups of suave Cubans and expats nibbling thinly sliced plantain chips: Satisfyingly crisp and salty, with a hint of garlic, they were the perfect complimentary snack to state appetites just long enough to make sensible menu selections while encouraging a pre-dinner drink.
Tourists barely got a look in, poking their heads upstairs to quickly snap photographs of the achingly hipster setting. Tables were replenished swiftly with groups of various fashions, the only commonality being vibrant conversation in passionate Spanglish. The combination of mismatched metal furnishing, pop art features from local artists and huge fresh flower bouquets could be described as 50's retro, but wouldn't be at odds in a trendy European or American coffee shop and the vibe was just as relaxed.
The cocktails at El del Frente are something special. Although rum is the Cuban spirit of choice, the gin selection was too tempting to ignore despite the inflated prices. A guilty indulgence, the talented mixologist poured goblets of Jimmy Hendrick's (Hendrick's gin, rose petals, cucumber, juniper, Schwepps tonic water) and Red Point (Tanqueray gin, chilli pepper, drops of bitters, Schweppes water) heaving with ice, garnish and a smug smile. The heady, floral scents of the surrounding flower arrangements infused with the sweet, refreshing botanicals nosed from the cocktails. I do love gin and El del Frente do gin justice.
Next, the food. Not yet realising that Cuban restaurants serve humongous portions, we tucked into empanadillas and of course the famed ceviche to start. Who can resist miniature deep fried goods alongside freshest of the fresh, tangy fish? Both dishes sang with flavour: The ceviche was perfectly seasoned and had that clean smell of the ocean that only the best fish dishes have and sharp, acidic lime was balanced out by the crunch of sweet onion. As for the empanadas, the accompanying umami-rich dipping sauce was the bold hero of this plate. Almost meals in themselves, we had to ask for a rest between courses, receiving yet more smiles from the friendly hosts.
The mains were perhaps unnecessary, but delicious. Succulent chicken tacos matched with veggies that still had a bite and earthy smell tipped me into a happy food coma. The juicy lamb burger was far too big to handle, even if the fried bread strips as a quirky alternative to potato lightened the load. Not that much remained on the plates, despite the clear demand for our table there was no rush, the pace of service blurred the line between restaurant and chill out lounge as groups settled in for the night.
Overall dinner was a triumph. El del Frente had set the bar high for Cuban gastronomy. If it wasn't for the bars and music beckoning us into Havana's streets for the evening, I would have gladly loitered, eavesdropping on the local chitter chatter sipping on their refreshing gin cocktails until closing.
El del Frente
Cocktails $4-12,starters $5, mains $8-13