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Our woman in Havana 

The food at Havana Nights is hit or miss, they may or may not have beer but, hey, mojitos!

click to enlarge The beef Piccahillo a la Habanera is delicious. - KRISTEN PICKETT

When I think of Havana, Cuba, I have visions of sweltering heat where the sun bakes my skin, a glass with rivulets of condensation and music coming from a club where patrons salsa dance into the night. Though I'm not naive enough to picture the same when walking into a restaurant in Halifax, I do have certain romantic notions of spicy Cuban fare that will excite both my palate and the traveller within.

When we arrive at Havana Nights, it's a bit too early for salsaing, but not for drinks and a bite. The restaurant, equipped with a dance floor, is empty inside, though the five patio tables are full. We cozy up to the bar and order a drink as we await a table outside. We order two mojitos ($6.75) and are surprised when the bartender asks our preference. I order the classic, while my friend with a sweet tooth gets his with added sugar and lemon-lime soda.

As a table becomes available on the patio we proceed out, cold drink in hand, to soak up the last few rays of sunshine above Spring Garden Road. Based on Havana Club rum, the mojitos are icy and refreshing.

We take a few minutes to review the menu and are assisted by our server who takes the time to describe many of the dishes. We're pleased to discover that the Cuban owners offer only authentic recipes. We decide on a substantial sharing platter for two ($25) and are confused as we're told that the steak portion of the dish must be cooked well-done as opposed to our preference of medium-rare. This confusion elevates to frustration as we're told that several of our desired draught beers are unavailable (and have been for the last few days).

What arrives at our table is the oddest dish I have ever encountered: The platter contains chunks of steak, pork, cut-up sausages, a fried chicken breast, house-made potato chips, several green plantain patties (tostones) and some steamed yuca---no dipping sauce, no bread, no nothin'. The entire plate's contents are brown, not a sprinkle of green to be seen.

It saddens me when the plantain patties are dry and flavourless; the pork is so overdone it's unpalatable and the sausage tastes like a generic breakfast link. The chicken is juicy with a crisp coating; the steamed yuca is soft and sweet and the beef ends up as a medium-rare---but it's not enough to tempt us to eat more than a few bites.

A few nights later, I decide to give Havana Nights another shot and bring a good friend along for dinner. We each decide on a traditional Cuban specialty. I choose the Picadillo a la Habanera ($16), a beef dish, while my friend settles on a roasted chicken option, the Pollo a la Barbacoa ($18).

The Picadillo is delicious: a flavourful mix of minced beef, onions, olives and raisins in tomato sauce served with white rice and fried plantains. The combination of sweet raisins and salty olives is a lovely and unexpected compliment to the beef, while the sweet plantain, with its potato-like texture, is a real treat. I could have used more sauce to soak up the rice.

The chicken dish is a hearty combo with fried potatoes and white rice accompanying a bone-in breast. The chicken is tender and the sauce of butter and soy has a sweet, syrupy consistency. The potatoes add a contrasting element to balance out the flavours.

Though the first visit to Havana Nights was disappointing, the second was intriguing enough to take the sour taste from my mouth and encourage another outing. I only hope that they improve their inventory process so that I can have a beer the next time.

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