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Havana, let's go...

What do you do when there's no room at the inn and the chef has gone home for Horlicks? You land on your proverbial ass at a 200-year-old church and pray they'll take mercy on you, like Angie and her late-night chum. That's what..

Published on January 14th 2010.

Havana, let's go...

A swift one in the Pig and Whistle had seemed the way forward. A place to attune our watches and our thoughts before imbibing in the more salubrious charms of its nearest restaurant neighbour.

I can’t even blame Gorry and his wild-eyed arrival, a good ten minutes after the appointed time, for our tardiness. He often leaves home two hours after the best laid plans are being played out in full swing, but perhaps spurred by news of my boss’s earlier directive to “go f***in’ berserk” he was eagerly late in only the fashionable sense. Nevertheless, by 9.35pm, when we shuffled up the steps of the chic Racquet Club and hotel, in which Ziba is housed, the doors were locked and the kitchen had gone home.

No room at this esteemed inn, then (or perhaps they too had got wind of the gaffer’s instructions for the evening) so we urgently embarked on the short journey up town in search of sanctuary. And only a 200-year-old church was prepared to offer it.

Ah, Alma De Cuba, with its high marble altar, religious artefacts, thousands of flickering candles and antlers - yes , antlers - everywhere, is a saving grace in a world of formality, managing to deliver consistently good dining against a backdrop not unlike that of the old Like A Prayer video. But here it's the original Madonna who takes the starring role, and while this one may not have an army of bodyguards or fitness trainers, she can at least boast her own personal Jesus.

In lesser places, the stunning surroundings of the once-derelict St Peter’s Polish church, might distract you from useless food, but Rob Guttman’s Lyceum Group have forged a holy, wholly agreeable alliance between style and substance. The cuisine is Cuban; Spanish style dishes are infused with Caribbean and South American influences. There are grand gastronomic flourishes too, with fiestas of whole suckling pigs, 16oz steaks, freshwater lobsters (crayfish in any other language) and langoustines, waiting on groaning boards to be brought to banquet.

Reluctantly, we deemed such extravagances a little unseemly at 10pm on a Tuesday night. After all, the Ziba crew would be tucked up with cocoa and Annabelle Tiffin by now. And you could that tell that this lot were in no mood for messing about either, even though in Havana or Barcelona the cutlery would be just beginning to tinkle.

Aussie manager Cameron briskly took charge of matters, lest we fawn a moment longer than necessary over the new winter menu. Actually, the first thing to order on a visit to this place is a cushion: a fatal design flaw at Alma De Cuba means that once seated, the edges of the tables come up to chest height on all but the most extreme ectomorphs - and Elastigirl I ain’t. So cushions are given out freely in a bid to avoid unfortunate scenarios whereby diners wearing strapless numbers could appear to be completely naked. What first date hell for the bashful. Happily, Gorry was fully clad from the neck down.

Terrine del Cangrejo (£6.96) a chilled slab of back fin crab and salmon with a lime chilli pickle was a perfect introduction, the sweet, chunky marmalade just stopping short of overpowering the delicate fish duo, while the components of Crema de Castanhas Do Para (£4.95), a creamy fish soup with shrimps, guacamole and Brazil nuts, synchronised swimmingly.

Cordero Asado del Higo (£16,95) was the sort of thing you might take a picture of to taunt a hungry friend by MMS. Rump of pink lamb lounging across a generous lattice of whole baby vegetables with chilli almonds (they do go nuts for their nuts in here) was a spectacle filled with promise that it mostly lived up to, and any chef who respects vegetables in this way will always be out in front of the pack. Only criticism was that there was little in the way of a foil to the sweetness of the cherry glace (sic) - was it really an ice cream? - that it came in.

Gorry’s Monkfish del Comino (£18.95) a cumin-baked tail of very respectable proportions, sizzled its way into the proceedings in a red wine jus with pomme ecrasees, what turned out to be a cylinder of champ, basically, the size of Garston gasworks, and glazed courgettes. It was an expertly executed dish by chef John Mac and we put the whole thing away with a couple of cheery bottles of Espiril Old Vine Machebo (£13.95) from the extensive wine list.

The service was unobtrusive and unhurried, and as we neared midnight we gazed down from the mezzanine level food area to the bar below, a kind of modern interior Zocalo which is home to the beautiful people and the cast of Hollyoaks.

We didn’t do dessert. Gorry was complaining, a little unfairly, that the waitress “had a face on her”, and that God’s house should be open all hours. So coffees later we decided to call it a night.
“Go f***in’ berserk?” I told him. “You should be thankful for small mercies.”

Alma De Cuba
St Peter’s Church
Seel Street

Angie Sammons
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