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Words: Kayleigh Petrie
Cuba and Camden have more in common than you might think. Rebellious, warm (in spirit), and a love of rum and dancing make them a good match.
All of which makes the opening of Little Havana, a new Cuban restaurant and bar promising salsa, frozen margaritas and proper Cuban dishes, very welcome news indeed.
Being a relative stranger to Camden, I’m thankful that the walk from the tube station to Little Havana is barely a hundred metres, with little room to get lost.
Although Little Havana is the first building on the street that doesn’t have graffiti-covered shutters firmly to the ground, it’s still got promises raucous energy: you can hear the music reaching out onto the street. It’s cold and damp – after all this isn’t actually Cuba – so I hurry inside to find the place in heated preparation for the upcoming salsa class. So far, so authentic.
That doesn’t stop the barman welcoming me literally with open arms and the offer of a cocktail to settle me in. It’d be rude not to accept, and one strawberry daiquiri later – and the freshest strawberry I’ve tasted during a British winter – I feel at home.
I’ve never had dinner with a live salsa class for entertainment, and it doesn’t disappoint. I’m forgiven by my dinner date – who is long overdue my attention – for my continuously distracted gaze wandering over to the dancers. They’re practically bursting with energy and just watching them is stoking my appetite.
We’re seated in a snug by the kitchen, attended to by waiters who all wear a beaming smile and engulfed in a hubbub of fellow dinners chatting in a range of languages. It feels like the epitome of metropolitan London dining, transporting you to a popular hangout in the tropics.
Delivered by a waitress bobbing along to the music, the starters make me sit up in my seat. There’s barely space on the table for two plates of this size – bringing to mind many a Christmas day sitting on odd garden furniture at a formal table which is too high even with cushions to dine on – but a swift reshuffle and we’re ready to dig in. In contrast to the homely atmosphere, the presentation is formal and precise; it’s a real treat for the eye. The salt cod fritters are perfectly crisp and crumble apart at the touch of a fork.
After a brief pause, and wondering how I am going to fit it all in, I welcome my plate filled with home-made dishes. The portions are just as homely as the atmosphere, the plates as vast as trays and heaped with stuffed fried plantain. It’s like being a guest at Fidel Castro’s Nan’s house, only with the artistic preparation of an ambitious restaurant. The meat in the goat stew is so tender you can cut it with a spoon, if you’re willing to waste time on cutting it in the first place. The rich texture is made still richer with the addition of moros and christianos, Cuban style rice and beans. It’s enough to satisfy any appetite.
Little Havana is little in name and table-size only – the portions, friendliness of the staff and bold colours are anything but. Where the starters are dainty, precise and composed; the mains are big, brash and bold. It all makes for a warm, hearty evening, a lively hideaway to get out of the cold and catch up with an old friend. Long live Cuba. And Camden.
20 Inverness St
Tel: 020 7284 0989