Café Havana - ReviewThere’s something quite melancholy about a seaside town out of season.
Mossel Bay’s summer throng of tourists in t-shirts has given way to a few brave souls in anoraks. Cars park outside the eateries that are still open – a sad strip of pizza, burger and curry takeaways.
We’re hungry, but a cruise around town is proving fruitless. We get excited to see a Rose & Crown, but it’s an off-licence, not a cozy pub.
Then we spot some coloured lights over the logo Café Havana. I’m dubious about a taste of Cuba translating well to Mossel Bay, but it’s that or a polystyrene pot of Curry in a Hurry.
Up the steps past a balcony is a room of dark wooded furniture, wooden floors and a fireplace. The waiter promises to start a fire so we sit at the nearest table. Old pictures line the walls, and not just the clichéd Che Guevara snap. There are shots of femme fatales and crumbling cafes, and placemats featuring old photos or magazine covers.
A sturdy cabinet holds some cigars while bookshelves are filled with old knickknacks like radios and record players, and a clunky fridge stands in the corner.
The owner has done his homework, because that reminds me of hiking up to the mountain hideaway used by Guevara and Fidel Castro. I’d puffed and slipped through the muddy forest and was astonished to see that the rebels had not only built a good solid hideaway, but had lugged a huge fridge up the mountain too.
The atmosphere of Café Havana really captures the spirit of those times. It looks like rebels have been smoking cigars and fomenting revolution at its tables for decades.
The menu is even better, and a delightful change from the pizza, pasta and tramezzini fare of so many places now. I was torn between three dishes: caldeirada de pescados y mariscos, a creamy seafood stew; Alubbias de Habana Cuban, a red bean and pork stew, or Pollo con manchego al horno, chicken breasts stuffed with bacon, cheese and mushrooms served with peaches.
The chicken won and the inventive but harmonious tastes were delicious, served with potatoes wedges sprinkled with paprika.
My partner’s pork and bean stew was also a treat but could have done with a touch more zing. Both were far better than anything I’d eaten in Cuba, where plates of chewy meat, beans and rice are served with an equally unpalatable surliness. Café Havana has taken those basic ingredients and added imaginative flair to create dishes that bristle with flavor.
The only downside is I had no room for a dessert that sounded insane - Chocolate Bomb, a Bar One wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried, then served with ice cream.
If that was authentically Cuban then Guevara wouldn’t have had to fight, he could have just waited until the fat cats’ arteries collapsed.
Café Havana is also the cool place for youngsters. As we left, people were streaming upstairs to the cocktail bar, with a dancing area, a curved bar and a balcony. Bar prices are perfect for young revolutionaries, with specials including a double vodka and crème soda for R20.
The short wine list includes some Chilean options, while a red house wine at R18 a glass was perfectly palatable. My partner asked for a Steelworks, and the barman came out to admit he’d forgotten the ingredients. I loved that unpretentiousness, and when it arrived in a funky jam-jar the half-used cans of ginger beer and soda came with it for topping up.
We wanted to linger by the fire so we ordered cappuccinos from our lively surfer-boy waiter. The machine is out of order, he told us. Just like it inevitably would be in Cuba.
Cafe Havana: 38 Marsh Street, Mossel Bay.
Tel: 044 690 4640.