I’ve always had a weird interest in Cuba. It probably started with my childhood obsession with ‘I Love Lucy’ and her gorgeous Latin husband, Ricky Ricardo, and grew as I learned more about the country’s culture and politics – okay, the cinematic masterpiece that was ‘Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights’ may have contributed.
Due to a travel ban which was only recently partially lifted that prevented Americans from visiting Cuba, the country sadly remains untouched on my bucket list. So when the lovely PR representative for Belfast’s very own Havana Bank Square invited me to enjoy dinner on them, I of course jumped at the opportunity to experience a bit of the country in my own back yard.
Obviously with a name like Havana I assumed I’d be tucking in to some proper Cuban cuisine, but after a bit of research I learned that the restaurant has recently undergone a rebrand and dropped its Cuban influence. A bit unsure about what I was about to experience, I eagerly booked a table for a Friday night.
Havana is located in Bank Square near the iconic Kelly’s Cellars and near Castlecourt Shopping Centre in an area which is currently being targeted for considerable redevelopment by the Department of Social Development. Its corner location is ideal for stumbling upon the hidden gem in a maze of hidden back streets. A gorgeous corner restaurant with big windows, the glow from inside the restaurant spilled out onto the dark street, the décor inside was equally impressive, with large opulent chandeliers and gorgeous tiled tray ceilings acting as the main focal points for the dining room, the restaurant does boast a mix of elegance and grit reminiscent of Havana seen in films.
After being greeted by the lovely Manager of Havana, James, we were shown to our seats and given some background on the ethos behind Havana. Our first task was to choose a cocktail. Easy task, right? What we were presented with was a list that covered all the bases, from a refreshing take on a Dark and Stormy, the Che Guevara made with Havana 7 year rum, Angostura bitter, fresh lime and ginger beer (£4) which was eagerly ordered by my friend Emma, to a stunning Gin Cup (£4.95) which was presented to me in what can only be described as a miniature fish bowl filled with Strawberry bloom gin (why isn’t this available in every bar in Belfast?), ice, chunks of summer fruits and lemonade. Cocktails wise, this menu really offered something for everyone, and with the most expensive cocktail priced at £5.20, this is an affordable cocktail list worthy of sipping throughout dinner – not just as a pre-starter treat.
Before we even placed our orders, we were presented with a taster of what was in store for us – a miniature prawn cocktail served in a small shot glass. The unexpected amuse-bouche was just what we needed to prepare ourselves for the amazing dinner ahead. For starters, I decided to go for adventure and chose the Octopus & Crab Meat ‘First Edition,’ which included in the description a roast watermelon and citrus syrup. Because of the apparently shortage of octopus from the restaurant’s local suppliers that day, a reinvented version of the dish was served which included a bed of smoked salmon which acted as a lush resting spot for some amazingly decadent crab. The gorgeous bite was served alongside a bright, pickled cucumber, thinly sliced and delicately arranged on the plate with walnuts which added the perfect amount of crunch and a herb-infused jelly. The presentation was top-notch, with each ingredient given the opportunity to be seen and appreciated for its contribution to the dish. Emma opted for the Ham Hock & Quail’s Egg starter which was served in a gorgeous take on a scotch egg and accompanied again by a bright burst of pickled veg included cauliflower and cucumber and a foam of horseradish which circled the plate. This starter was an absolute show stopper, and probably the most appetising Scotch egg I have ever seen or tasted. Note to chef: please share this recipe with my local chippy.
For our ‘Second Edition,’ we consulted again with James to help us make our selection. At first glance, the menu seemed all a bit….ordinary. Options included a catch of the day (salmon), oven roasted chicken breast, female duck breast, two beef options, and a vegetarian polenta. Still looking for a bit of Cuban inspiration for my dinner, I chose the Female Duck Breast, which came with a cold salad of summer vegetables and brown rice and a beetroot vinaigrette. The duck, which was perfectly cooked, offered a gorgeous crust on the outside with a slightly pink inside which was balanced perfectly by the cold rice salad and, again, punches of acidity coming from pickled vegetables which lightened the entire entrée. My duck and Emma’s tender slow braised beef with onions, mushrooms and a jus were complemented perfectly with a bottle of mellow house rioja which was excellently priced at £15.
Stuffed to the gills with our delicious and moreish dinner, we opted to skip the dessert and chose to instead finish our bottle of wine with the help of Havana’s gorgeous cheese board. The board, which featured all locally sourced cheeses, was highlighted by a mild Cashel blue, and lovely creamy brie as well as the chef’s own pear and fig chutney. The board was a lovely way to wrap up a leisurely dinner, take in our surroundings, and reflect on an exceptional dinner.
Positives: The décor and location of the restaurant made Havana feel like a true hidden gem in Belfast’s City Centre. While menu options appeared common at first glance, unique techniques using popular ingredients and creative presentation raised the menu options beyond their descriptions on paper.
Overall, I would encourage anyone looking for a new place to eat to take a wee trip to Havana. From the stunning cocktails to the cosy, family-friendly atmosphere and thoughtfully crafted, gorgeously presented dishes, we felt more than looked after for the duration of our meal. Havana is an exceptionally priced, intimate, and inventive restaurant and it is certainly no surprise that their head chef’s recent ‘Yes Chef’ award win for Best Newcomer in Ireland.
By Brittany Breslin
Follow Brittany on her journey as a food reviewer for Belfast Times in her BBEats column.
For more information on Havana Bank Square visit www.havanabanksq.com.