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Definitely Not Just a Café
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez

In the Callejón del Chorro, very close to the Havana Cathedral, the visual arts serve as inspiration for the culinary arts. Recipes are appropriations of classic pieces by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, Marcel Broodthaers, and Wifredo Lam, providing a distinctive and thematic axis for the very unique restaurant called Esto no es un café (This is not a café).

Small, with a bar and an open kitchen, it was conceived of as a curatorial project in which the arts and cuisine originate from the same concept: creation. Many customers enjoy the complicity of experiences that bring them back to familiar references from the history of universal art. The spaces, both inside and at the outdoor tables, are filled with music—Cuban and international standards set to a jazz rhythm.

Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez

The menu is intriguing from the moment you pick it up, as much for the recyclable material with which it is made as for its descriptions and the exquisite and offerings, not too ostentatious and yet very seductive. It includes an intelligent selection of cocktails, wines, spirits and other beverages, as well as tapas, appetizers and desserts.

The restaurant offers breakfast in the mornings, with coffee, chocolate, juices, and infusions. I recommend the fresh vegetable juice: a mixture of ripe tomato, carrot, cucumber, basil, celery, and ice. No one ingredient overwhelms, not even the celery that due to its strong flavor and aroma is difficult to temper in this type of preparation: it has a clean combination of flavors that linger on the palate.

Among the fresh salads, the one with fresh seasonal vegetables exhibits colorful cuts and diverse textures, like lettuce and chard, cabbage, carrot and tomato slices, seasoned with white-onion-and-sesame vinaigrette. On this occasion, the dish was served without the cream cheese, an ingredient that appears on the menu; I only learned that they didn’t have it when I received my dish, and this information should have been given as soon as the order was placed.

The originality and coherence of the main dishes is indisputable: La fuente de Duchamp (Duchamp’s Fountain), served in an unexpected urinal like the piece its name refers to, is a roasted pork loin, with tarragon dressing, mustard and raisins, and a garnish of cold, blanched and pressed vegetables. The Pollock Chicken is roasted, with slight mint and chocolate flavors, bathed with parsley and soy sauces that are drizzled on the plate like the artist’s paintings. Christo’s Fish, inspired by the artist’s giant wrappings, is a fish fillet cooked in foil, and La cacerola de Broodthaers is a lobster, shrimp, and mussels casserole, alluding to the well-known piece.

Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez

I linger on the dishes I taste on this occasion: Azul Klein (Klein Blue) and El Tercer Mundo (The Third World). The first is served on blue dishware, an analogy to the Klein monochromes centered on an intense blue color. It is a boneless lamb loin stew, very soft in texture, cut into cubes and marinated with red wine and a Cuban sauce with fewer spices than the traditional recipe and with subtle additions of cinnamon, cloves, and honey, that surprise the palate, especially when fused in the mouth with its garnishes of blue cheese crumbles and mashed sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon. At first we experience the strong flavor of the cheese, and then the lamb and the purée attenuate that impression, provoking new sensations in the perception of the flavors. The second dish is a tribute to the piece by Wifredo Lam. In tune with the concept that the artist uses in this painting, the ropa vieja —stewed beef with a stylized local flavor of lightly fried olives, peppers, and onion slices— seeks to make an association between the concept of cubanía (Cubanness) and the humblest people. Served in a deep white dish and garnished with two large pieces of boiled cassava with a garlic and oil sauce on both sides of the dish, it offers a stimulating chromatic contrast and luminosity between the dark of the meat and the light tubers. The cleverness of this presentation recalls the miscegenation of the regions of the so-called Third World. For dessert, we ordered the tropical fruit crêpe (pineapple, guava, papaya, and banana), with a silky pancake and a light sweetness in the fruit sauce, the perfect combination to end on.

Since its opening five years ago, artistic taste is still the restaurant’s signature, according to the criteria of appropriation and creation of founding chef Jenrrys Pérez Marrero, today carried out by chef Alexis Albertus and his partner Nelson.

What is less excellent is the service, because it is not on par with the food. Care must be taken with timing and presentation while serving foreigners and nationals alike and, above all, “not killing the customer’s illusions” when asking for details about the menu options. In my case, the waiter opened the menu and, without “taking me through the history of art,” went directly to describing the ingredients of the recipes; that is, he informed me of which one was made with chicken, or with pork or fish, but he never told me what is involved in their conception and elaboration, which, in my opinion, was a big mistake.

Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez

The restaurant Esto no es un café boasts a multipurpose space on the upper floor that functions as a gallery with temporary exhibitions by contemporary Cuban artists. In April it will be reopened as a VIP lounge, wine cellar, and for pairings of spirits and habanos, post-meal options that are very fashionable in today’s gastronomic scene.

Places like this, connected to international references, with a masterly defined and consummately thematic profile, are benchmarks both for visitors to Cuba and for those of us who live on this island and wish to try something different.

Mayrelis Peraza, the owner of Esto no es un café, is an arts expert who, in 2011, decided to start this business as a cultural project. According to her, “Having a restaurant in Cuba is the most surreal thing that someone can do.” So, she decided to paraphrase the title of a famous piece by René Magritte, the father of surrealism, The Treachery of Images, which served as inspiration for the name of her business.

Those who visit this place have an unforgettable experience as interactive consumers in contact, consciously or not, with culinary appropriations and other works of universal and national art. To close, I suggest not overlooking the receptacle for the check: nothing less than a reproduction of one of Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell Soup cans. For my part, I didn’t miss the opportunity to fill it.

Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez

Evaluation: Excellent
Dining room: 8.6
Kitchen: 9.6
Bar: 9.2
General: 9.19