When we first visit, it's just about three weeks old but gives you the feel of an old familiar. Like Cheers, the sitcom bar where everyone knows your name, Havana has a cosy, lived-in atmosphere.
Perhaps it's because the space is filled with memories. After all, as a card-carrying member of Three Flights Up and a regular at Polly Esther's, the 70s themed club that followed in its wake, this has been our go-to place for fun for a long time.
Up the familiar flight of stairs
Today, even as the ghosts of tequila-fuelled technofests and Grease Lightning-infused, disco ball-lit nights flit about, the sophisticated Havana appeals to the grown up within. There are solid tables made of sleeper wood and really comfortable seats. There may be an Old Monk and Bacardi bottle chandelier, but there's nothing that's gimmicky or out of place here. Right down to the disused fountain in the centre of the room, you're transported to a Spanish-style hacienda in a Cuban quarter. The long and picturesque verandah with large windows created along one side allows for some amount of privacy and the sense that you're seated in your own little balcony overlooking a picturesque plaza. Here, you can choose to be part of the buzz of the big room or tune out into your own space at will.
The Instagram-worthy rum bottle chandelier!
The Narang family is at the helm of this one too. Ajay Narang, Director Restaurants of Mars Enterprises, tells us how much detailing went into getting every aspect of this place perfect, right down to the colours and textures. No wonder we are impressed with how it's turned out. And more than anything, we think the warm and vibrant vibe is something that South Mumbai has been missing for a while. Havana is just what the doctor ordered.
Settled cosily at a lovely wooden table in the corner, tapping our feet to the lively Latin beats, we turn our attention to the menu. Corporate Executive Chef Zubin D'Souza, who oversees F&B at all the Narang properties across India, is in the house to help us with our choices. But, just like the menu at the revamped Pizza by the Bay nearby, this one too, resembles a 'Best of' shortlist and it's not hard to decide what to order. As Chef Zubin points out, most people pick from only a few of the most popular dishes. That's why he's drawn from his vast experience and focused on just these sure-fire successes.
So we go for the Patatas Bravas that are dusted with paprika and served with garlic aioli and the Cuban version of Portuguese Mojo Sauce, which is infused with orange juice and slightly sweetened with sugarcane juice. The wedges of potato are perfectly done and we know this one is going to be one of their best-sellers already!
The Nachos too, crisp and moreish, are the ultimate bar snack. There's a baked version as well, for those who're trying to eat healthy. Non-vegetarians will enjoy the Pan-seared Prawns and won't mind a munch on the milk-macerated Chicken Aioli Skewers. The dishes are kept simple and served without much fuss, in home-style baskets, bowls and platters. Just what you need from your cosy bar around the corner, we think.
The Mojo Sauce pays a return visit with the Cubanos, sandwiches that satisfy the tastebuds as much as they sate the hunger pangs. Chef Zubin, who has a wealth of food stories, regales us with the tale of how these hearty sandwiches originated amongst Cuban immigrants working in the US. If you've watched the 2014 movie Chef, you'll recall actor Jon Favreau's rendition, set to some great music, which captured the soul of these pressed sandwiches, usually made with Cuban bread and Mojo-marinated pork, as he perfected them for his Cuban food-truck. In the outtakes when the credits are rolling, you see Los Angeles chef Roy Choi teaching Favreau the secrets behind the best Cubanos. The proof of the flavour is in the pressing of the sandwich as it sizzles on the griddle. Compressing the sandwich seals the flavour and melts the cheese well.
In comparison, the Cubanos at Havana aren't quite as sexy. But, having said that, the Ham and Cheese, the Chicken in Multi-grain Bread with olives, jalapeños and home-ground mustard, or the Grilled Paneer with Caramelised Onions are all passable and quite comforting options. We love that the bread, baked in-house, is fresh and aromatic with just the right texture. On another occasion, along with some of their wonderful South American coffees, we try the delicious Blue Cheese and Onion Quesadillas, a substantial snack if you aren't quite filled up with the bar bites.
Their newly introduced sliders are a must-try we hear. Will they and the Roladas (wraps in regular lingo) make our tummies rumble and our tastebuds Rumba? We'll reserve our verdict on that for now, although here's a pic for you to decide for yourself...
Fresh on the Havana menu - Sliders!
We also plan to go back for the Paella, as we're quite curious to see how the Cuban avatar of this Spanish rice dish is executed at Havana. As we write this, we see that they've also added some specials this month. Of these, we'd love to sample the Spiced Panko Crumbed Vegetables with Steamed Rice, Black Bean Stew and Curried Pineapple Sauce and the Grilled Paneer Steaks, topped with orange-infused BBQ sauce, Roasted Vegetables and Wilted Spinach. And then there's also their super long salad bar that people just can't get enough of on Sundays. Remember, these were the guys behind those fabulous salads you used to pile up on your plate at the old Just Around The Corner!
Captures the right spirit
As the newly minted SoBo oasis, Havana is a haven for those who love their tipple. Some of the best single malts complement their cigar lounge, which is Cuban-centric, of course. Apart from a long list of Scotch and Whiskey, there's plenty of Cachaca and Tequila too. Then there's a really wide selection of rums. And their signature cocktails are naturally all about rum as well. El Presidente is a commanding combination of gold rum, sweet vermouth and triple sec.
You can't ignore El Presidente!
The Dark Pearl (dark rum, espresso and sugar syrup) is intense and, just like its namesake, Captain Jack Sparrow's ship from The Pirates of the Caribbean, worth fighting a sea battle for. Zombie features three types of rum - white, dark and gold - with absinthe, passion fruit, grapefruit, grenadine and lime juice, and makes a valiant attempt to turn us into the living dead!
Cool and creative bar manager Amy Chithung
Bar manager Amy Chithung has clearly been swept away by the Caribbean beat and we are more than happy to let the rhythm dictate our mood. The right time to try The Dictator perhaps, a blow-your-mind blend of white rum and apple and lime juice, with orgeat (almond, sugar and rose water or orange flower water) and sugar syrup. When we visit in the day, we are pleased with our pitchers of flavoured Mojitos, perfect for long afternoons blending into smoky evenings. And when you go, don't forget to sample a Daiquiri too. Both these drinks originated in Cuba and certainly distill the spirit of the Caribbean country so beautifully - vibrant, heady, flamboyant and fierce. Of course, especially in keeping with the way the country is freeing up its borders with its neighbours lately, a definite must-have is the historic Cuba Libre. Rum and coke never tasted so good. Just as this drink does, a night at Havana sets you free.
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