Moscow, Meet Cuba!
Text Senor Pepe
Variety shows, popular in the few restaurants scattered about Moscow in Soviet times, became ubiquitous in post-Soviet Russian restaurants, when talented musicians, dancers, circus acts and other performance artists sought a to earn living by their hard-earned skills during the tough times of the 90s. In recent years, the variety show has virtually disappeared, as Russia’s economy has recovered, leaving just a very few top floor shows such as the Russian Nights Show at Restaurant Yar in the Sovietsky Hotel on Leningradsky Prospekt.
One of Moscow’s great floor shows these days is at the relatively new and rather hidden away, Old Havana (Habana Vieja or Stary Gavana depending upon your language) restaurant. Open for two years now, Old Havana presents an evening of Latin celebration that draws diners onto the floor to join its dozens of brightly costumed dancers, Creacion Latina and Brazil So Music musicians, and Capoeira performers. When you go to Old Havana, you might pack a toothbrush, because you may be drawn into an all-night Carnival right here in Moscow.
Old Havana is located a few metro stops outside the Garden ring near the Volgogradsky Prospekt metro station on Ulitsa Talalikhina, which runs perpendicular to Volgogradsky Prospekt. The large building facing the street houses two venues, the restaurant and the bar. Enter the front door and turn left to the bar, or go right into the large, high ceiling restaurant with tables gathered around the performance area. The restaurant will likely be your first stop on your evening’s adventure, beginning with dinner and the show, and ending the night in the bar.
To fully enjoy the restaurant and the cuisine, it is necessary to arrive early. Once the show begins, at 19:00, it will be difficult to pay much attention to the food, other than to check that your glass is full. The restaurant is decked out like the courtyard of a hacienda with a balcony and colorful frescoes overlooking the floor. It seats about 200 at about 40 tables. Tables 83, 71, 51 to 54, 43, 31 and 21 surround the performance floor, so if the show is important to you, try to get one of these front row seats, and if the show is not important, either arrive and leave very early, or go to another restaurant.
Chef Frank Sarria controls the kitchen at Old Havana, producing a menu that is billed as Cuban and European cuisine. The Cuban house salad, Habana Vieja, consists of lobster chunks, tiger prawns and mussels cooked in white wine and served with a tropical sauce at 720 rubles. El Guateque, the more simply prepared mixed salad with avocado and fresh vegetables is 230 rubles. A Cuban Africano soup with black beans, fried onions and paprika is 150 rubles, while a Sopa Cayo Coco with rock lobster, tiger prawns and butter fish in coconut milk is 800 rubles.
Main courses include Fricase de Cordero, a lamb leg marinated in Creole sauce at 850 rubles or a T-Bone Steak Guantanamera served with mashed yucca at 1,900 rubles. Cuban fish entrees include Mariscada con Salsa de Marakuya, fried rock lobster, tiger prawns and sweet pepper with Caribbean seafood at 1,900 rubles. For garnish, there’s Tostones Platano, fried genuine Cuban green bananas at 110 rubles or Yucas Fritas, boiled palm tree root with Mojoto sauce at 200 rubles.
There are Cuban desserts and even a Tiramisu at 200 rubles, to be topped off with Cubita Cuban coffee. Cubita coffee is the state brand, which is shade-grown, chemical-free in the Sierra Maestra mountains, with beans hand-picked and naturally sun dried.
Old Havana stocks a number of rums, including an extended line of Cuban Ron Cubano right on up to a Santiago de Cuba Axtra Anejo, a 25-year old that runs 1,550 rubles per 50 ml or $800 a bottle. A Guaroram, made from rum, guarapo (sugar cane syrup) and lemon is 600 rubles and the base Mojito is 350 rubles. All Cuban restaurants and bars claim some kind of lineage to Ernest Hemingway; Old Havana’s connection is an El Hemingway Special with rum, cherry brandy, and grapefruit and lemon juice at 270 rubles. Draft beers include Warsteiner at 180 rubles or a Stary Melnik at 130 rubles for a half-liter.
Old Havana has its own cigar roller, Cuban Tabaquero Carlos Valdes Mosquera, who worked most of his life at the Cuban La Corona factory. Prices range from 1,000 rubles for a Tabaco Havana Vieja Panetela to 2,500 rubles for a Tabaco Havana Vieja Torpedo Diademas.
The Sacode Brazil show is fabulous and infectious, and runs pretty much continuously for at least three hours. The music starts, drawing you in, but one of the first things you notice is the costumes of the dancers and musicians. They are over-the-top colorful, elaborate and feathered creations. Brazil So Music provides the rhythm for the entire show, including its centerpiece, a half dozen bare-chested Capoeira performers. The show is orchestrated by the always effervescent Cuban, “Mr. Harasho.”
The Capoeira performers glide and tumble onto the floor in a dance-combat game that has its roots in the Central-West African culture that was brought to Brazil with the slave trade. At the center of the performance, two warriors within a ring of others test each other through a series of sweeps, kicks, jumps and other athletic feats designed to throw the opponent off balance. In this show, Brazil So Music provides the beat, while the half dozen performers provide an extended Capoeira demonstration, with and without props, that leaves the audience in wonderment over the capabilities of the human body. The performance area has a two story high ceiling, and as you watch the Capoeira performance, it becomes clear why.
The octet of musicians of the Brazil So Music are also wonderfully costumed, and they provide the Carnival rhythms and melodies for the show’s bright bejeweled Latin American dancers dressed in elaborate Brazilian Samba costumes that carry the weight of the show. By the end of the show, the dancers draw diners onto the floor for an orgy of Latin music and dance. The cover fee for the show is a paltry 400 rubles, which is added to your restaurant check, and it includes a beer or Cuba Libre.
When the show is finished, it’s time to move over to the bar. The 400 rubles paid in the restaurant covers the entry fee to the bar as well. The bar is like a country village scene, less formal and by midnight even more rollicking than its neighbor. The dance floor becomes a mix of guests, Cuban dancers, and the Creacion Latina musicians. Creacion Latina is formed from Cuban workers from a village in Las Tunas and they bring authentic Cuban music to the big city. There’s not much we remember after this.
In Brazil, the 2008 Carnival has just finished, but the show goes on at Old Havana. We’ll see you there this weekend.