HAVANA TIMES — El Lagarto is a restaurant high in the forests of the Escambray Mountains that will put you in a food coma so deep that you will be glad it’s all downhill to get back to your casa particular in Trinidad.
Like most superior restaurants in the country it is a private business. The outdoor patio setting is a new construction that has a rustic feel without even a whiff of being cheesy.
Instead, you should be preparing your olfactory system for fresh fruits, homemade tea, warm vegetable soups, and sizzling meats. And yes, that scent of charcoal that passes your nostrils every few minutes is coming from the iron stoves in the open air kitchen.
We arrived mid day, after a morning hike to Caburni Falls in the Topes de Collantes parks area. We were only a few minutes outside of Topes, in the Vega Grande village, when we came across my new favorite eatery on the island.
The sign says “El Lagarto: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. Ecologic.”
We parked the car and made our way on foot between two rural houses and towards the dense forest. After a few meters we came to a suspension bridge over a very small pond. We crossed it, still unknowing of our destination.
The reward was immediate. Climbing the steps to the restaurant we were greeted by the two cooks and waitress: no pressure, but very professional. They offered us fresh fruit, including a hybrid pear-apple which I’d never seen before in my life, as we admired the location.
After getting over the fact that this was quickly shaping into a delightfully unexpected culinary exploration we took our seats and enjoyed the best service I have received in Cuba. Maybe it helped that we were the only customers.
The offering is by “tabla”. Everything is included in the price, minus the alcoholic drinks. The main courses of the day were pork ribs, grilled chicken, seared pork loin, or grilled pork chops. Good hearty meat options in a setting that could easily be assumed to be vegetarian. I loved it.
We started with a round of basil tea, prepared with the plants growing in the forest garden next to the restaurant. Then came the vegetable soup, again from the backyard, in a light broth accompanied by flame toasted bread with fresh cream butter. And of course there was a salad, topped with an edible flower. If it would have stopped here I would have gone away fully satisfied.
We heard the main course before we saw it. Around the corner from the kitchen came a sizzling plate of meats (our group had ordered one of each). They were placed atop a metal box that contained charcoal and ensured that:1) we could easily share, and 2) our food would be plated pipe hot.
The main course was accompanied by rice, beans, vegetables,) and fufu de platano.
No, thank you, but we are so very full.
But it is included…and homemade.
We asked for two serving of candied pears and two servings of candied mango. Our desert arrived with a serving of locally fermented “digestive liquor” that was probably pushing 50 proof.
Our after dinner guests included a housecat and mosquitoes. The former was charming, the latter were few in number, but quite annoying.
Since we had not yet tired of commenting amongst ourselves on how exceptional the experience was we asked for some mojitos. The mint leaves were as thick as quarters. ‘Nuff said.
We had been warned that we needed to leave Topes before late afternoon, lest we get caught in the rain. The first drops fell right when we were settling our bill (30 CUC took care of the whole tab with another 5 on top for a tip).
As we waited out the worst of the downpour the two cooks reappeared…with their pet parrot. Dinner and a floor show. We took turns posing with the bird and then dodge the last drops of rain as we retraced our steps over the bridge and to the car.
You can get to Lagarto from Trinidad on the road to Topes de Collantes (20km). The telephone is 01-42-541325 or [email protected]
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