Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Review: Cafe Havana

Cafe Havana Restaurant in Baker Street, Belfast City Centre
Cafe Havana Restaurant in Baker Street, Belfast City Centre
Cafe Havana Restaurant in Baker Street, Belfast City Centre

Now that Café Havana has stopped serving Cuban food, is their new culinary experience improved, or is it just at odds with itself?

A lot of thought went into the creation of Café Havana in Belfast's old mambo district off Royal Avenue. The city centre's Latin mojo came to life late last year when promises of beef and chorizo fritas and other robust Cuban delicacies such as cod hash and empenadas enticed us to the new restaurant.

Until the opening of Café Havana the city's appetite for Latin American food had been catered for through the proliferation of Mexican burrito bars and restaurants such as Acapulco, Baja Taqueria and Boojum.

The move to introduce Cuban was not so much based on the revolutionary communist island's culinary palette (it is limited) but rather to create a stylish re-interpretation of our understanding of what Cuba has to offer: cool old guys smoking Cohibas, crumbling Spanish colonial architecture and rusting Buicks and Studebakers left behind by the fleeing capitalist running dogs back in 1959 when Fidel Castro and his movement took over the island following five years of combat.

Such was the interest in the new Café Havana that the Cuban ambassador to the UK actually came along to mark the official opening of the place last November. And that opening set the tone with all sorts of Cuban tapas, salads, empanadas and so on.

The room itself is magnificent. High ceilings, tiles, mosaics, images of Cuba all sensitively put together, recreate an authentic-feeling Cuban vibe. The cocktail list is presented as a set of cards in a cigar box and there are pictures of Cuban newspaper front pages plastered around the place adding further to the mood. All they need to do is turn the air con to sweltering to capture that genuine Cuban experience.

But then something funny happened. I revisited the place once for lunch in January and twice for dinner, one time in March and the last one to celebrate my birthday, and nothing Cuban could be found in the menus. No enchaladas, Cuban spiced pork, huevos Habaneros, rice dishes or chicken fricassees. Instead, there was oven roast chicken breast served with broccoli and parmesan potato cake, dry-aged sirloin steak with celeriac, potato, turnip and red onion butter, slow roasted beef with onions, mushrooms, duck fat chips and pepper cream. Call me old-fashioned but if I go to a place called Café Havana I expect to see at least three or four Cuban dishes on offer. But there aren't any.

The fact that the chicken and beef dishes are outstandingly good still doesn't make up for this identity crisis. When you sell yourself as something so distinctive then you need to deliver. It makes about as much sense in marketing terms as opening an Irish bar and selling nothing but Japanese sake, whiskey and beers.

What matters to the diner is that the experience matches the proposition. In the case of Café Havana, a vast credibility gap has arisen because of this match failure. It is almost irrelevant that the food is excellent and that the service is impeccable. It doesn't matter how good it is because it's wrong.

Nonetheless it is my duty to report to you that the heritage gold and red beetroot with goat's cheese and bread crisps was a quality dish made of top class local produce, that the ballotine of chicken with mesclun leaves, chorizo, roast tomato and aioli was moist, dense and tasty and that the mains mentioned above were very well executed, polished and flavoursome.

But that's as much as I can muster because the bad taste left by the mismatch overwhelmed me.

The advisor says this is unkind and that my tunnel vision is getting in the way of the fact that the front of house staff are utterly charming and helpful and that the kitchen produces some of the best food in Belfast. That may be so.

But it's still a profoundly awful match. It's chalk and cheese, it's lamb stew served with soy sauce and chopsticks, it's wearing a dinner suit to the beach. As Roy Walker says: "It's good. But it's not right."

So until Café Havana either changes its name and décor to suit the food, or the menu reverts to Cuba (there is enough in the Cuban culinary lexicon to keep it interesting), the clash of identities will make it all a bit hard for us to swallow.

THE BILL

Ham and eggs £5.50

Crab and octopus £7

Chicken ballotine £5.50

Slow beef £14

Steak £18

Pork belly £14

Estrella beer x 2 £6.60

Glass Rioja x 2 £8.50

Coke £1.50

Coffee x 4 £8.40

Total £89

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