As improbable as it may sound, one of today’s hottest new restaurants in Havana serves up Russian cuisine. Located right on the Malecon, Havana’s glorious seafront avenue, a stone’s throw away from the Prado, and three floors up, lays Nazdarovie! (the Russian expression of “cheers” or “to your health”!) Once you have huffed your way up the tiny stairs,you will find yourself in a heavenly oasis of rich wood furnishings, a long welcoming bar and a wall of Soviet-era propaganda posters.This was certainly worth the hike! Wait, there’s more. Have a look outside on the balcony where, weather permitting, you can have a table with one of the finest views in the country overlooking the entire Havana Bay. Ask for table One or table Two (if you are a couple) and you will find yourselves sitting side by side, jaws agape, as you take in the breathtaking sights. Oh, and you also came here to drink, er, eat? Well, you’re in luck (credit bobby). Not only does Nazdarovie feature a wide selection of vodkas (you remember vodka, right? That’s what you use to drink before you discovered your first mojito!) but also a full menu of Russian and Ukrainian favorites.
To get things going, we were treated to a delicious cured fish appetizer as well as salmon caviar canapés both of which awoke our palates. These were followed by a substantial borscht (which only Grandma could have prepared) and homemade pork- stuffed raviolis topped with sour cream and dill. Both dill and parsley, herbs rarely seen in Cuba, figure prominently here, as they are essential ingredients in many Russian recipes. A local farmer specially sources these for the restaurant. At this juncture, we needed some breathing space and a couple more iced Stolichnaya shots to calm our pleasantly excited taste buds. So far, so хорошо (good). Next up, we are torn between choosing the chicken Kiev, the catch of the day, the cabbage rolls or the beef stroganoff. In the end the stroganoff and chicken Kiev won out (and a pact was made to return and try the others soon). All of the dishes are masterfully prepared by the Cordon Bleu- trained chef, Roberto “Robin” Fernandez-Tijonenko, who is willing to come out to chat at the drop of a napkin (order flow permitting). Robin, who speaks flawless English (thanks to cooking stints throughout the U.S. and Canada), was educated in Miami and had his first job at that city’s South Beach Ritz Carlton Hotel. He tells us that he is of Cuban-Ukrainian decent which is why he is so passionate about this style of cuisine. In fact, many of the recipes are time-tested classics from his grandmother. Yum!
But Nazardarovie’s fascinating pedigree does not end there. Two of the partners in the venture are Danelys Coz Lopez (or “Dane” to her friends and clients) and her husband, Gregory Biniowsky, both of whom have their own impressive roads to become restaurateurs. Dane, Cuban, is a former judge and crown prosecutor. Gregory is a Canadian-born lawyer who has lived and worked in Cuba for the last 20 years as the go-to man for many companies exploring business opportunities on the island. The location of the restaurant was their home for many years before the inspiration hit to take advantage of some of the new incentives to run ones own private enterprise. From this, Nazardarovie was born. Whatever the inspiration, fortunately for the discerning Western foodie, a true flavor destination awaits. Come for the view, stay for the food (and a vodka or two!). Nazardarovie! Nazdarovie! Malecon # 25 3er Piso e/Prado y Carcel Tel. 860-2947 www.nazdarovie-havana.com A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.