A taste of Cuba
This island nation is on many an enthusiastic traveller’s bucket list. Romantic images of vintage cars, crumbling plasterwork, peeling shutters and rustic wrought-iron balconies come to mind. The country seems to be frozen in the ‘50s and the contradictions between colonialism, revolution and communist rule hang thick.
Lyn and John Davis, owners of Picasso’s Mexican Taqueria, also in White River, travelled to Cuba in search of new ideas. “We absolutely fell in love with the country: the vibe, the cocktails and the food,” Lyn says. “And so the idea of opening such a restaurant here was born.”
They brought something of their eclectic experience and the country’s lively palette back to South Africa, complete with black and white floor tiles, wicker and rattan, and wallpaper patterns with massive tropical leaves in vibrant colour.
Habana 64 features a unique dining experience and the Cuban ambience is definitely the first of its kind in the Lowveld. Not only do they serve traditional cuisine and drinks, but also a variety of authentic cigars – displayed in a temperature-controlled box.
The jukebox, rustic display fridge and pictures of street scenes and the famous revolutionary Che Guevara, create an atmosphere of vintage Havana.
Cuban cuisine has a charm all of its own. Communist rule diminished resources and people had to learn to keep their food simple, yet tasty. Traditional dishes reflect the people themselves; not only is it simple peasant food, it is deliciously prepared with great passion. Due to colonisation and the slave trade, the country’s cuisine is also infused with Spanish and African flavours.
Chef Bastian Pretorius grew up in White River, where he attended Laeveld Akademie. He has had a passion for cooking for as long as he can remember and after matric, he received his training through Sabi Sands and the South African Chefs Association.
“Cuban food is prepared with fresh ingredients,” Bastian says. “Lyn and John grow their own vegetables and herbs just outside town and every morning I visit the garden to choose fresh produce to use in the day’s dishes.”
The pork for the Lechon Asado as well as the Cubana sandwich is slow-cooked in Picasso’s pizza oven for two to three hours. Both these dishes are signature Cuban cuisine and are so good that it could lead to some serious finger licking.
Other mouthwatering main courses include crispy salt and pepper squid, spicy kofta lamb skewers and rainbow tomato, pomegranate and mint salad.
Bastian prepared the Cubana sandwich and the salmon Cheviché poke bowl for Get it, and believe us when we tell you, it’s good!
The poke bowl is an interesting taste combination consisting of salmon and fresh veggies drizzled in their home-made teriyaki sauce. He also served a slice of divine rum and banana rice cake with fresh cream, which is unlike any dessert we have ever tasted.
John and Lyn have been in the business for many years and Picasso’s is proof of their ability to successfully manage a busy restaurant that provides excellent service and a unique, tasty menu.
They also owned Jatinga Lodge from 2001 to 2006 and according to John, the establishment’s restaurant was listed as one of South Africa’s top 100 during that time.
But why is the restaurant called “Habana” and not “Havana”, as Cuba’s capital is known to South Africans? And where does the “64” fit in? Apparently the Spanish pronounce it as “Habana”, and don’t forget the silent “H”! According to John, the secret to the “64” is the fact that both he and Lyn were born in 1964.
While Picasso’s is well known as a busy family restaurant, the Davises have chosen not to open Habana 64 to persons under the age of 18. Their reason is the fact that the establishment offers an adult environment where cigars are smoked and upmarket whiskies, gins and cognac are served.
The prices of the cigars range from R50 for a BlackStone cherry cigar to R550 for an imported Cohiba Siglo VI.
We would most certainly recommend Habana 64 to anyone in the mood for a trip to South America. Their prices are reasonable and the ambience is true to Cuban tradition: warm, passionate and friendly.