travel to taste: cuban eats

Let me start off by saying that I didn’t go to Cuba for a culinary adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to! Much like the culture and heritage, Cuban food is a unique fusion of African, Spanish, Caribbean influences. But when you’re travelling with someone that has food restrictions, it’s a challenge to balance the desire for new food experiences with the mindfulness that there needs to be “safe” foods for them on the menu. Some people don’t share the same culinary audacity and enthusiasm that I have, and that’s OK.

For the most part, we stuck with the buffet at the resort to sustain us. Unlike my last trip to Cuba, this did not mean being limited to a single cooking station, and a buffet table with 8-10 dishes to choose from, with more than half of those usually being some form of starch. Mind you, even on that trip, my appetite was satisfied, and I found my beloved croquetas de jamon that I mentioned in a previous post. But at Royal Hicacos…man! There was A LOT of food! We’re talking three cooking stations (pasta, fish/seafood, and meats), each with their own accompanying buffet with 8 hot dishes, a salad bar, cheese and cold meat bar, desserts galore, and a creperie station where they would prepare fresh crepes, and pancakes and waffles for breakfast.

Having a buffet like this was a life-saver for us. It ensured that we had the basics covered: French fries, cheese pizza, spaghetti, chicken wings, and burgers, while also giving me the opportunity to load up on different dishes to try. This was both a blessing and a curse. My too-tight jeans would say it’s a curse because I swear I packed on another 10 pounds in the seven days that we were there. I don’t even know how that happened! I guess I didn’t sweat as much as I thought to burn off all those cappuccinos, piña coladas, desserts and buffet meals.

The first (but definitely not the last) piña colada that I enjoyed at the Lobby Bar.
The first (but definitely not the last) piña colada that I enjoyed at the Lobby Bar.

I found the hot dishes at the buffet flavourful enough, but typically light on the spices and heavy on the salt. I only had one item from a cooking station, and that was the salmon skewers, which I didn’t really love and regretted ordering two. I found that the salmon had quite a strong fish smell and taste. Their smoked salmon on the other hand was fab and always came paired with delicious capers. The only thing I was missing was cream cheese. And bagels.

Unfortunately, the croquetas that I was so excited to return to Cuba to have (and to take a foodie picture of for my blog) were nowhere to be found at the resort. Not surprisingly, since I commonly referred to them as “mystery meat logs,” but I was hopeful. I didn’t even get any up when we went ventured into Varadero to go to The Beatles Bar. I thought they might have them but instead of ham, they had fish and chicken croquetas listed on their menu. I tried to order both, and to my dismay, the waitress said, “No croquetas.” and I was heartbroken and had to settle for onion rings. What a bummer. I am now on the lookout for somewhere in Southern Ontario that serves good ones… I could always make them at home, but I feel worse about indulging in fried foods when I make them myself.

Despite not getting any mystery meat, we were lucky enough to have lobster meals two days in a row! The first was a lunch served on Cayo Blanco beach during our catamaran trip. I wouldn’t necessarily rave about it – the lobster was cooked well, but was only lukewarm, the shrimp was cold, the small piece of fried fish was good, and the vegetables seemed like the Cuban variation of frozen veg that irks me so badly when I am served it at restaurants here.

Cuban Restaurants
Top: Cayo Blanco beach Bottom: Beach Grill at Royal Hicacos

The second lobster meal was at the resort and was fantastic! We booked our only à la carte dinner for our last night before flying home. We chose the beach grill, which normally would be “El Viejo y El Mar,” but it was closed for renos so they had a little make-shift bar/grill/ à la carte dining area that seemed to do the trick. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a prime sunset time slot, and it was totally dark by the time we made it down for our 8:30 reservation, but it was well worth the wait. The set menu was a mixed vegetable salad (more like a coleslaw with a sweet dressing), a piping hot bowl of cream of tomato soup (Sean and I totally burnt our tongues like crazy), and a surf and turf entrée. The lobster was grilled to perfection and served with a light butter cream sauce, the filet mignon was a perfect medium-rare with a delicious beef gravy, and the dish was rounded out with a baked potato and a nice variety of vegetables. Dessert was delish too – a pineapple strudel with raspberry drizzle – but after the first three courses, it was hard to find the room! It was hard, but I did anyway.

Now that I think about it, the extra 10 pounds isn’t very surprising.

Despite how amazing the beach grill dinner was, there is one thing that stands out in my mind as being the most memorable dish. The honour has to go to the pineapple and papaya flambé that was prepared for me table-side in the buffet hall. With all that local sugar and salty butter made into a lovely caramel syrup, a splash of Cuban rum, and beautiful presentation, this dessert has definitely made it on my list of Number 1 dishes from around the world and was the food highlight from the entire trip.

flambe

Now that I’ve spent a week satisfying my reprehensible gluttony, it’s time to go on a healthy living kick. I’m not sure how successful I will be since Fall Fair season is upon us and that means pogos, funnel cakes, and pumpkin pie… Ah well. Wish me luck!

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