Monday, February 17, 2014

Havana and Quito

Another trip to Havana, another bunch of paintings. This was a commission of my friend's daughter Sophie and her dog.
Another trip to Havana for work. Stayed with my friend Delia this time in Vedado in the house where I lived for about 7 years. Vedado remains my favourite part of Havana and now there are many excellent places to eat and drink. Chansonnier and Atelier have always been favourites but now Starbien has established a great reputation and are keeping their standards very high. Not so with Mediterraneo which had a fantastic housemade sausage and porcini risotto a few months ago. When I went this time, no sausage and they used regular rice instead of arborio ... WTF?! I spoke with the chef/owner who said he couldn't get the proper rice and that his clients didn't mind it with the long grain rice. Hmm, wonder how long his place is going to last.

Matt and I at Starbien in Vedado

For addresses and further reviews, check out my buddy's site at

Went to a new place with my buddy Claudio who is the expert on all new restaurants in Havana, especially the Italian ones. We went to Bellaciao at 19 and 72 in Playa. A bit off the beaten path but a really charming and funky place. The owner used to run Prado y Neptuno which was the first good foreign run restuarant in Havana in the 90's. The property is a rustic outdoor garden but the place was set up by someone with a good design sensibility. The waitresses, all very cute of course, wear black Che berets, floor length black aprons, and when they turn around, they are wearing very short cut off jeans. We had the owner order for us and he gave us very nice shrimps to start and then the best gnocchi I have ever had. Light, fluffy, pillowy ... mmmmm. Also a very good seafood ravioli. Washed down with a nice wine and then rum, cigars and espressos.

Interior and bar of Tao - Zao?

Also went to a new place in Habana Vieja. It is just beside Templete on the harbour, up a small alley and is called Tao or Zao. Very funky little place where we ordered snapper and got two very large and nicely deep fried fish on one order. Also had oxtail which was good but could have used another few hours braising. I really liked the plates they had and asked if I could buy one. I was prepared to pay $10 but was told that they were not for sale. They did mention that I could find them at a store on O'Reilly so went there a few days later. Found them at two stores and walked up and down the street twice carrying a set of 16 plates - way heavy but a good work out in the end. I had to go to two different stores to get the set but they were only $2.50 for the large ones and $2.25 for the salad plates. They feature a Cuban artist but are made in China.

Plate buying day in Old Havana, dropped by the Meson de la Flota to catch Angela's Cuban state dance accreditation exam. She passed!

Attended the Havana International School golf tournament and played with the principal, Ian Morris, who ended up tying best gross and won with the best net. Congratulations Ian! Donated a large bottle of JD for the Putt for Plonk. I went out to the green after the lunch and found two guys practicing. I was talking to one of the guys and asked him what he was doing in Havana and kind of insulted him about him cheating with all the practice shots he was taking. Found out later that he was the new Ambassador of a European country I won't mention ... sorry your Excellency!
Claudio and I awarding Luc for his winning putt.

He was the leader with his putt sitting a few inches from the cup until Luc from Canada drained his putt! Bought a few hundred raffle tickets and did pretty well after being shut out last year and came away with numerous bottles of rum, golf crap, and a night in a Varadero hotel.

Golf tournament swag! Ian looking a bit jealous but he'll have to make to with winning the tournament.

After the week in Cuba, I headed down to Quito, Ecuador to visit my friend Noel. Quito is quite high up so the sun felt very hot when it was out and it got very cool when it was cloudy and in the evenings.

Believe it or not, I think this was my first ride in the back of a pick up in my almost 20 years in Latin America

First impressions, Quito is a fairly organized city, quite clean with good roads. Traffic was pretty bad at times to the point that some cab drivers wouldn't do certain routes during rush hour. People were quite friendly and I met a lot of Noel's gringo and local friends.

Post parillada puros

Had one day in the valley under a blazing hot sun. Played soccer and Amerian football and then ate a few pounds of meet washed down with plenty of wine and beer. It was a party to celebrate the marriage of a co-worker so lots of nice family and friends. Broke out the cigars at the end which was very popular with many people partaking - including a woman doctor.

My great hosts in Quito, Noel and Jenny

Also participated in my buddy's office Christmas party which started up at the gondola over the city. We went to the go cart track and attempted to hospitalize each other under the guise of being competitive. The favourite manouevre was to blaze down the long straightaway behind your next target at ful throttle. When the cart in front braked, you would ram right into his back pushing him into the tires and slowing yourself down enough to make the tight right hand corner. After several runs, I finally figured out how to run fast - you either go full throttle or full brake with nothing in between and certainly no coasting. I was having a terrific run and passed about 6 people and was just behind the hypercompetitive Noel and Ryan when I turned a corner and found them stopped right in front of me chatting. My eyes went wide and I hit the brake as hard as I could ... and broke the cable ... and smashed into Ryan's cart throwing his head back and forward in an awesome display of whiplash. Luckily, he is virtually indestructible so no hospital visit needed.

I want to go to this party!
Fancy eats in Quito
Afterwards, went to a very high-end Japanese Peruvian fusion place. Gorgeous interiors but without a Japanese guy in the kitchen, the sushi was actually much worse than I could have even imagined. The rest of the food was pretty good (although pretty hard to do fusion properly without a strong understanding of both cuisines - randomly adding ginger and miso doesn't cut it) and the desserts were great.

Street food!

Did a street food crawl starting with Bolones de Chicharron (plantain masa balls with pork rinds) and Empanadas de Verde (deep fried emapanadas with a fresh white cheese from Manavi) near the national stadium.

My dining company at a $1.50 lunch restaurant in the old city.

Then spent an hour and numerous cell calls tracking down a dude named "Colorado" from the coastal province of Esmeralda who specializes in Corviche. A deep fried plantain masa tube filled with fresh albacore tuna and dressed with a cole slaw and lots of hot sauce. Finally tracked him down on Avenida Naciones Unidades in front of the Banco Pacifico building. He had been going up and down the office towers selling his food to the late night office workers. Luckily we called and he saved the two very last Corviches from the 250 he sold that day. The crowd around him wasn't happy with us.
Waiting for the chitlins to grill

Jumped into a cab and crossed the city to Barrio Floresta for their food stands in the park. Sampling the star of Quito street food - Tripa Miski - chitlins soaked in vinegar, seasoned and then set on fire! They were heaped onto the charcoal grills throwing up giant flames as the fat melted out. Served with an extra side of home made hotsauce, it was a smoky, salty, chewy, gamey and spicey delight.
Extra crispy please

Delicious with ice cold beers. We asked for our order extra cooked which gave a great crunch to the chew. Wading into the scrum to try the free samples and then extra toppings on everything.

Selfies in the parque Floresta

Also had an amazing deep fried crispy pastry, super thin, with a salty cheese on the inside and sugar on the outside. With some big beers bought from a corner store, it was some of the best al fresco dining ever.

Jenny in uniform and the beautiful Carmine Restaurant

One of the reasons for going to Quito was to bring rum and cigars for my buddy Noel who was going to share them with Carmine, the chef and owner of Carmine's, a very popular Italian restaurant. For some reason, Zacapa XO is hard to find in Quito so I brought a few bottles for his bar. The stuff was so popular, I think he drained the first bottle on the first night and this is at $25  a shot! So had a couple of amazing meals there along with some excellent wines.
Noel and I with Carmine

The second night we were there, we really wanted to relax and smoke some cigars so they moved the lounge furniture out onto the lawn with some propane heaters. They brought us food to snack on, some more great wine, and we sat out there for hours smoking cigars.
Me and the jungle helicopter pilot

Met some interesting people including an Argentinean who spent a lot of time in the Amazon flying helicopters and now running his own fleet. And shooting the shit with Carmine who cooked for many years in NYC, the Catskills and Montreal.