Photos: Archive of Polinesio
For over 60 years it’s been possible to taste the exotic flavors of Polynesia without leaving Cuba.
In the very heart of Havana, where 23rd and L Streets merge in El Vedado, is Polinesio, an inviting restaurant on the ground floor of the Habana Libre Hotel, offering a unique experience from noon and until night.
The paradisiacal adventure begins at the entrance. We’re received by Tiki1 and Marikoriko—according to Polynesian legend, they were the first man and woman, equivalent to biblical characters. With a décor that puts you at ease in a cozy and informal atmosphere that’s both attractive and seductive, Polinesio pleases foodies and bon-vivants alike.
Time seems not to pass here, as patrons are transported to another world. Its dim lighting lends privacy, while the mat ceiling seems to shelter us from the cool Pacific breeze. Once inside, we begin the journey from Polynesia to the Antilles, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, to another world and to another era.
Two barrel-shaped clay ovens emit intoxicating aromas of spiced meats, whose ancestral recipe is one of the best-kept secrets of the house. Among wicker and rattan furniture, lamps and utensils made of bamboo, glass and wicker, we find the arcane sphinxes of Ku, the god of war; Lono, lord of agriculture; and Kanaloa, mother of the waters and the sea. They tell a story, winking at us with their wooden eyes, of the boom in the 1950s when they arrived in Havana and Tiki culture was all the rage worldwide. When Elvis Presley filmed Blue Hawaii, colorful Hawaiian shirts, the hula-hula dance and lei necklaces became fashionable.
The restaurant opened in 1958 when the Havana Hilton (Habana Libre) was inaugurated. At first it was called Trader Vic’s, like many other restaurant-bars around the world inspired by the aesthetic of that time. Re-baptized Polisenio after it was nationalized in 1960, it retained its thematic and gastronomic line.
Osvaldo Saínz, an experienced bartender and grandson of Jesús Saínz, one of the place’s founders, tells us it’s a sacrilege not to taste the Kibú, one of the house’s famous cocktails (orange and pineapple juices, three types of rum, lemon, and a few drops of gin). Tiki cocktails have a very particular style, which is still respected here. Another “must-try,” he says, are the Scorpion (made with orange juice, brandy, aged rum, almond liqueur, and lemon juice), the Pirata (coconut liqueur, pineapple liqueur, pineapple juice, milk, and aged rum) “which used to be served in a skull-shaped mug,” and the Zombie, or the famous Mai Tai, the “house cocktail that, according to legend, was invented in 1944 by Victor Jules Bergeron, founder of the first Trader Vic’s in Oakland [California].”
Here aromatic effects and beneficial nutrients are mixed for the enjoyment of the palate and soul. Classics are the chicken wings, cheese balls in sweet and sour sauce and, of course, barbecue chicken. In Polinesio, the chicken is steeped for several hours in a marinade with curry, cumin, bay leaf, paprika and other “secret” ingredients. The pork leg requires even more time—sometimes up to 24 hours—with guava, aged rum, salt, sugar, and tomato. “The oven itself and the macurí spit take care of the rest. About 50 minutes is enough for the chicken; the leg takes three hours,” explains Chef Ernesto Viñas while he makes our mouths water: “The key is in the temperature and the marinades,” he says.
Right in front of the circular bar in the middle of Polinesio are the ovens with the burning macurí wood, visible through glass. For the last 40 years, the first thing that Jesús Córdova does when he arrives at about 8:30 in the morning, is to light the fire.
With capacity for almost a hundred diners, Polinesio is a site of Cuban nostalgia, a must-visit if you want to learn more about our culinary heritage at its most exuberant.
If you’re looking for a cozy, central place with a good value proposition, come interact, as I did, with these humanized statues at this Tiki oasis that lingers in the imaginary of several generations of Cubans. Try the seductive culinary confections behind the dividers, live the elegance and charm of the unknown. Don’t forget that, with the smell of the ovens, each night the Tikis revive to tell us their story.
- Tiki is the name given to large, human shaped statues that are part of the ancient mythology of native peoples of the nearly one thousand islands of Polynesia, in the Pacific Ocean. Nowadays, some of these cultures use them in spiritual contexts. In New Zeland, for example, it´s common to use small tikis to protect against infertility.