Thursday, April 18, 2013

Visit to Cuba

Fresh veggies and fruit in Playa

I thought I would write about a recent trip I took to Havana. I went with a couple of Korean businessmen who are based in San Salvador and the two teenaged sons of one of them.

Their trip was to look at some opportunities in the textile industry and also some commercial retail operations. I was able to get them a decent price at the Hotel Nacional which is always the best place to stay on your first visit to Havana.
Cuban showgirls!
Caught a show at the Parisienne which is like a mini indoor version of the Tropicana but with more white dancers. 
The show at the Parisienne
As you can see, the stage is right on top of the audience so you certainly get a good view of the show. Drinks aren’t too bad there but always ask the price first of anything you order and try to avoid the food – there are much better places.

Like Chansonnier where I ended up going back to a few times. They have done some more remodelling so it is even more hip and trendy looking. Hector is letting us smoke in the vestibule now and when I asked him to put on some music, he had some great chill lounge tunes for us. I also got to meet the Italian chef who came out to say Hi. We asked him to make us his best dishes and he sent out great eggplant and octopus starters and then a sweet potato ravioli that was fantastic. Not huge portions but very tasty.

Dining at the Chansonnier
I ended up going back with some friends including Shana and Jose who used to work for PWC in Cuba about a dozen years ago and are now based out of Amsterdam. Shana hasn’t changed at all and Jose lost about 80 lbs and they both look fantastic. They brought their kids as well and they were super well behaved in the restaurant.
Built solely for tourists in Old Havana, but still great food and service.
Also went to this place in Old Havana which I think was in the Feria de la Artesenia building. I would normally avoid places like this like the plague but one of my Cuban associates suggested it and knew a lot of people who worked there. Food was delicious, service was great, and the singer was amazing. I asked for my three favourite songs “Cuarto de Tula”, “Como Fue”, and “Oye Como Va” and they did a shockingly good job. I sometimes forget how incredibly talented Cubans are.

Celio Perez Martinez belting them out.
 We also walked through Old Havana which the guys from El Salvador liked because it was such a huge area and it was all safe to walk through. In El Salvador, it seems like the only safe street to walk through at night is Paseo del Carmen – although you are seeing more and more people out at night in other neighbourhoods.
Can I have my camera back?
At one point, we were all at the Capitolio and we had to get back to the other side. Since there were 7 of us, we needed two cabs. I asked some guys with the old cars how much and they said $12 for each cab. I pointed out that there was a Panataxi van parked across the street that we could get to drive us for $5. So they said $20 for two old cars and I said no and they came back with $12 for both and we struck a deal. The visitors wanted to take some pictures so the guy who brokered the deal took my camera to take some pictures. This is me trying to get my camera back!
Very large canvas, asking $140
We then went to the big artisans market in the port area where I made everyone buy something. I looked at dozens of great paintings but decided just to buy one small one and some photo prints. 
Berta's first piece since having her baby
Oh, we also went to visit Jurgen where we all bought paintings albeit at a much higher price. Here is some of what we got. Jurgen’s wife had her baby and she is back painting.

Three of the paintings we bought from Jurgen.
I met up with Shana and Jose when our mutual friend, Ana Rosa the flamenco dancer, told me that she was in town. I got a lift from them in my old Nissan Sentra – my first car in Cuba which I donated to the dance company (the process only took 8 months! I needed to get the signatures of two Vice-Ministers, one in Foreign Investment and the other in Culture). A 1988 B-12 model, made in Japan, sold in Canada and still running! A bit smelly inside as they replaced the fuel injector with a carburetor. They couldn’t afford a good VW one so they bolted on an old Lada one so quite a strong gasoline smell inside.

25 years old and still going strong! Ana Rosa and Miguel posing in front of the mighty B-12.

Walking through Old Havana, we came through the Plaza de San Francisco and was amazed to see that my old office, the first place I worked in Cuba, had been converted into a luxury boutique hotel. This place used to be a dump! Lots of water and power outages, an unsafe rickety elevator that encouraged everyone to use the stairs, pretty dark and dirty. Now it is a couple of hundred dollars a night.

Lobby and reception desk in my old office building.
Hanoi took me to his favourite hole in the wall restaurant. A tiny tapas place in Old Havana called El Chanchuello. When I heard tapas, I figured small portions so I ordered 3 for us to share ... which we barely finished as the Cuban chef had a different notion of what a tapas was. Tiny place, two floors, great food with the plates being $4 or $5 each, rock music. 

Delicious Cuban tapas and it's all organic!
Oddly, there were a lot of tourists there since it was a bit out of the way and they could afford to spend a lot more. But I suppose it was high season so Old Havana was fulling of turistas. The table to my right had guys from Brazil and Australia and a woman from Japan. To my left was a German couple who had ordered their food before we sat down and then watched as we were served first (Hanoi knows the owner). We finished our huge dinner and they still had not received their food and they were getting angrier and angrier and got quite rude with the waiter. They finally slammed down their beers with a loud “scheisse” and stormed out.
Great vibe at Chanchuello
I can sympathize. One day, I had an hour free before my next meeting so I ran down to Barrio Chino where I knew I could get at least a caja on the spot. But I went to Tian Tan and asked the waitress and then the chef if they could get the food out to me in 20 minutes so that I could eat and then drive back to Vedado. They said yes ... and we waited ... 20 minutes ... 30 minutes ... 40 minutes and we finally got the food. I called in and found out that my meeting was cancelled so I was able to eat a relaxed meal.

The band at the bar.
Walking through Old Havana and I was out of cigars so we checked out some bodegas and found some 1 peso cigars. For 4 cents, you can get a decent cigar in Havana. Hanoi wanted to hear some music so we went to the Centro Cultural Asturania. I really like the third floor resturant, la Terraza, for their braised and grilled leg of lamb and the great guitar playing dudes. I never knew about the downstairs bar but what a coincidence that the place had some paintings by Jurgen and the late great Lorenzo was the interior designer. Elaborate cocktails for a few dollars each and we met the band and their manager outside in the lobby where we were sitting smoking cigars. It was an all girl band, all graduates of el ISA, with four mulattas on the instruments and a blanca lead singer. Very nice jazzy stuff and my friend fell for the tall skinny keyboardist so I suspect he will be dating her when I get back to Cuba in a few weeks. Great bar, great vibe, great music.

Also managed to get to the Asador del Rey where we had a whole roasted suckling pig. Oh, we went to El Palenque which used to have the best service in Havana. I was telling someone about the service and told them to time how long it took to get a coffee. I ordered it from a passing waiter and it was in front of me in 40 seconds! Unfortunately, the old manager got old and the people got lazy and the service became terrible. My friend got into a fight with the kid who takes orders at the big bbq pit so he refused to take his orders. Then he found out that I was friends with him and didn’t want to take my order! But there is a new younger manager there and the service is getting back to the past levels. They have a few private dining rooms that are amazing – linens, good china, lots of wine glasses, very good a/c, and a private washroom. I still have to ask for the bbq pork to be hot and cooked.

Another great trip to Cuba.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The new year in El Salvador

This is almost like the blog that doesn’t exist! Anyways, back in sunny San Salvador after almost a month in Canada over the holidays. Ah, nothing beats a consumer society in the first world when you want to talk about Christmas holiday excess. Lots of parties, dinners out, great sushi (thanks Sushimoto for all the freebies and the birthday desert and present for my son Elliot).

Elliot and Diana enjoying the food and bev at Sushimoto
But this is a blog about  El Salvador! Well, the place is still here. The city is fine and pretty calm. The new Romero highway from Autopista Sur Bulevar de Proceres is fantastic. I jump on right past the Presidential Office and I can drive 80 mph on a brand new concrete highway all the way to Los Chorros highway which snakes down the hill towards Santa Ana and Sonsonate. Unfortunately, Los Chorros is under construction for a several more months and is down to one lane so the 15 minutes you save on Romero is easily eaten up. Going up the hill? Horrible as you can only drive as fast as the slowest car – usually a 30 year old pick up with a top up hill speed of 20 mph.

Golfers are buzzing about the Dye designed El Encanto golf club that may open up 6 holes for use in a few months. They have apparently sold 100 of the 600 lots with 50 going to golfers. They are still trying to get people to spend $25,000 to become equity members but no one thinks it is worth it. They have a presentation at Campestre to the richest golfers in the country and no one thought it would be worth more than $10,000 for a membership. Rather an interesting conundrum for them when there are only about 250 regular golfers spread out at three existing golf courses. They are going to have to cannibalize the other clubs to make any money to cover their expenses. A comparable golf course, designed by the Dye group, in Antigua Guatemala cost $80M to build and was getting only 10 rounds a day!

As a knowledgeable businessman friend of mine said, it is not easy making money in El Salvador.

At my course, I am paying $75 a month (when I am here) and has 9 holes in very good shape – except that 7 holes have OB making it very frustrating at times. I spoke to one of the manager who said that they would waive the initiation fee and charge $60 a month if your prepay 6 months. Can you imagine that? $60 for unlimited golf for one month.  The poor golfers down from Canada staying at the adjacent resort are paying $57 a round plus $20 for the cart. And unlike the other two clubs, caddies are not mandatory (although it is a nice policy to keep these caddies employed).

Awesome bar at the Bennigan's at the Torre Futuro. Best view of the city.

I have joined a group of old guys who get together twice a week for beers and cigars. One time is at the Torre Futuro site where that pathetically non-Irish American chain Bennigan’s grabbed a primo spot with an incredible view of the city. What kind of Irish pub doesn’t serve Guinness? But the food isn’t bad (actually, the tempura shrimp are pretty good) and it is cheap. Around the corner is the new Ruth’s Chris steakhouse. Haven’t had the chance to eat there (i.e. an expensable meal) but hope to soon. They stole the three great old waiters from Paradise where there has been a notable drop in quality. I spoke to an employee there and they said that they are doing 50 covers a day. Seems high but then again, that is a very low number for a place like that. Hope they have the deep pockets to gut out a year and I wouldn’t mind if they lowered their prices. You can get a plenty good steak at Pampa Argentinas or Hacienda Real for a lot less. Or go to the churrascaria at the Intercontinental for unlimited sushi, shrimps, seviche, carpacchio, and several kinds of grilled meat.

Working out at the Zone Fitness gym. Well located for me just down the road and the people are nice but they don’t have one cardio machine that isn’t broken or has a problem. Far contrast from the Y in Owen Sound where I was visiting and their new $40M complex with probably 50 brand new machines all working perfectly.

Back again writing after a few months. Updates, the Chorros highway was closed this past weekend to put the finishing touches and should be open next Sunday! Quite excited as I am getting really tired of driving around the back way of the volcano, or the twisting single lane of the coastal highway, or sitting in a huge slow chain of cars to get out to the golf course and a friend’s beach house.

Have also been to Ruth’s Chris and have a mixed impression. Turns out that the owner is also the owner of Paradise/Tony Roma’s and is part of the Pyramid Group that owns all the Pizza Huts, Wendy’s and KFC’s. I think he wanted to have a high-end place in his stable of restaurants so brought in the Ruth’s Chris franchise. Good thing he has deep pockets because it is going to be a challenge to make money there. The restaurant is beautiful and has several dining areas and must seat about 250 people. Furnishings and fixtures are all high end. Staff is great and they pulled the best waiters out of Paradise (which caused a terrible drop in the quality of service at that place). The only problem? There were only about 14 people eating in the restaurant during the dinner service!

The maitre’ d was our old favourite server and he made sure we got everything we needed. Our waiter seemed a bit inexperienced and had some problems getting the food and drinks served properly but he was trying. The food itself was pretty good but I was expecting something more. I ordered the biggest rib-eye on the menu and ... it was just okay. Mind you, I have never been a big fan of RC’s signature melted butter on the steak (I prefer the jus at Morton’s). But spending double of any other steak in the country, I expected something better. Also, Dan had the big filet and the lobster tails ... the latter were so tiny that each was consumed in two bites. What a waste of melted garlic butter! The manager came out and explained that they were having problems with their suppliers so that is why they put two on the plate. I have seen bigger shrimps in this country.

So all in all, the place is very lux but very overpriced for the market. Even the valet parking is ridiculous at $15 when the place gives you 3 hours of free parking and then charges $1 an hour. I should mention that the prices are the same as in North America or maybe even cheaper but when you have a dinner for over $100 for two people without wine, it seems excessive in a country where that will feed a family of four for two weeks.

I should really get to the subject of beer. I have been lamenting the lack of good draft beer in this country. Hanging out with the old retired guys here, I have learned the joy of drinking the local draft. When served very cold and cheap, Pilsener is a fine beer. My instructors have been a Brit who loves his bitter and a German from Munchen who, in his prime, could drink 10 large steins of beer. Now competing against  them are two micro-breweries.
Drunk guys at the beach! But they were very cool.

One is started by the San Francisco couple who opened up a small place in Tunco and serve 3 fine beers. Actually, they are excellent, tasty and creative ... but very expensive. They have three flavours and I tried each one a few times. 

New beer at Brasilea
At Brasilea, I think it is $5 a bottle which makes it the most expensive beer, more than any European import. I spoke with Andy the owner down in Tunco and he said that the taxes are huge and that is why he has to price it that way. He has a Belgian style wheat beer flavoured with maracuay (a local fruit) and pineapple. Very nice fruity flavour and a change from the orange flavour often found in wheat beers. He has an IPA with a local panela fruit and a very tasty black ale with coffee. They each have their own personality and I couldn’t say which I liked the most but probaby the black ale since darker beers are hard to get here. That reminds me that the giant Constancia brewery here used to brew Guinness as one of their three main beers! Some friends of mine went down to Tunco for the day and we had a great seafood lunch on the platform overlooking the beach. 

Lindsey and Egle showing off their giant seafood lunches at Tunco.

Then we went for a stroll to look at some of the boutique hotels and stopped by Brew Revolution for some beers. Met some funny guys from town along with their very inebriated cousin from Mexico. Had a long conversation with them capped by a salsa dancing exhibition by the Mexican cousin and my friend visiting from Toronto. All this fuelled by many beers and the hot sun.
Lindsey and her new friend showing off their salsa moves.

Competing against him is this Salvadoran guy who I met through his wife who runs the Expat Facebook group here. He is brewing two beers and has called it El Cadejo. Fatima said that was a great name for the beer and I Googled the name and found out that it is a regional legend about a large dog-like animal, a white one that protects travellers and a black one who tries to kill them. There is also a belief that the good Cadejo protects drunks! Naturally the beer comes in a light and a dark.

The pale beer is called WAPA which means Wheat American Pale Ale and seems to be a take off of “guapa” or cute in Spanish. Funny name since it doesn’t look or taste like an Ale but it is very tasty and has a nice hoppy finish. The darker is a red ale made from 4 German malts and 3 British and American hops which results in a very full and almost bitter beer. The Wapa seems more popular at bars but again, the price is a bit high. Republik has a pint for $4.00 and Bennigan’s for around $5.00. At the latter, you can get a 12 oz glass for $1.50. The last time I went to Paradise, they were offering two 20 oz mugs of Pilsener for $3.00.

I am not sure how successful these guys are going to be at this price point. Salvadorans love beer and love good beer but I am not sure if they are going to pay more 2 to 3 times the price of the local beers. It is quite sad as I know that the unit cost of materials for a pint of good beer is about 25 cents but this country has very high taxes and very high electricity costs so it is hard to produce cheaply.

Okay, going to post this before I get busy with something else.

Next blog posting will be about my trip to Bogota.