A world away in Bar Harbor

At the small bar by the front door of Havana, I’m sipping on a mojito, expertly mixed by veteran bartender Mark “Duffy” Dyer, when the door swings open and a party of six enters energetically. “We’re headed home tomorrow so we had to come back one more time,” says the leader of the pack. Owner Michael Boland shakes hands and leads the group to the host. He turns to me and says, “People often dine with us more than once on their vacations.” That’s no surprise.

Havana is so appealing on all fronts that repeat visits can be necessary to take it all in. Guests can choose to sit in one of two dining rooms, with decor and furnishings that evoke a warmer clime. And although there are white tablecloths, the restaurant ambience is made more casual with sturdy woven rush chairs and antique Spanish doors. Vintage photographs of Cuba are hung on wood-paneled walls in one room; in another area, graphic fabric panels are suspended from the ceiling. Warm weather brings the opportunity to dine on the covered outdoor patio, an opportunity that one should take advantage of whenever possible.

Boland brought this little slice of paradise to Bar Harbor in 1999, inviting diners to experience the food of Latin America. While a student at the College of the Atlantic, Boland wrote a thesis on river dolphins and traveled to Brazil to do research. He became so enamored of the area, he returned winter after winter, eating, drinking, and absorbing the culture. “I love wildlife and I love biology,” he says, “but I knew I wasn’t going to be a scientist.” Restaurateur is a more fitting vocation for Boland, with his love of fine food and wine, as well as a commitment to a high level of service. He returned to Maine to open and close several eateries in Bar Harbor, Bangor, and Portland over two decades. Because of his love for the people and the cuisine of Latin America, Havana is the one closest to his heart.

While the emphasis is on the bright, full- flavored culinary traditions of countries from the Caribbean to South America, dishes include myriad ingredients, drawing on other heritages as well. “We don’t hold strict boundaries,” says Boland. Crispy spring rolls, one of the most popular appetizers, are little umami bombs, filled with roasted mushrooms and soba noodles with a soy glaze. Lobster moqueca is a Brazilian stew that features generous helpings of Maine’s favorite crustacean and haddock, with red peppers and onions, simmered in a savory coconut broth. It’s a Havana signature item that lets the skills of an accomplished kitchen staff shine.

Chef de cuisine Josh Crotty has developed and evolved the seafood paella over several years. It’s full of lobster and a boatload of other shellfish, pleasantly spicy, with red pepper and garlic puree to amp it up even more if you’d like. The paella is served with the socarrat, the crusty layer of rice from the bottom of the pan, as it would be in Spain. Crotty started working at Havana four years ago, and has worked his way up in the kitchen. “This is the kind of food I grew up with,” he tells me. “My hometown has a big Hispanic population, so the flavors are all familiar and I recognize the smells.” He’s indebted to executive chef Cassady Pappas, whom he calls a “mastermind,” and who has guided his progress. But Crotty has the kind of enthusiasm and passion for global cuisine that can’t be taught. He’s traveled all over the world, researching food, chefs, and restaurants, always with a notebook in hand. Last winter he and his wife spent a month in Mexico (after visiting ten countries in Europe), learning all sorts of new tricks he’ll be utilizing in the Havana kitchen, along with new dishes. “Cooking has fully consumed me,” he says, without irony.

The conversation turns to wine when Boland hands me a weighty, cork-covered portfolio. It’s Havana’s extensive wine list, with over 800 bottles. Many are kept in the large, glass walk-in cooler that takes up one wall of the dining room. “I’m fascinated by the history and geography of wine,” he says. “I love the romance of it.” Boland is a largely a self-taught oenophile, but he’s taken a few courses for edification and fun, and earned certification as an advanced level sommelier. He tries to make the long list friendly and accessible by dividing it into unorthodox categories such as “15 Great Wines for $45 or Less” and “All-Star Line Up.” Boland’s constant devotion to the wine program has earned Havana a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 2004. “I’ve had people tell me they come especially for the wine list,” he says proudly. And they come for Duffy’s cocktails, too. The bartender with the recognizable white beard has been mixing and pouring since Havana’s first day. Aside from the smooth mojito, a Cuban specialty, Havana offers other signature drinks with Latin flair. The caipirinha is Brazil’s unofficial cocktail, made with cachaça, a distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice. And the Havana martini, made with Cruzan aged light rum, is an island twist on the classic with Cointreau and fresh lime and pineapple juices.

In the summer of 2014, a new cooking and eating area, dubbed the Parrilla, after its large grill, was built onto the side of the restaurant. “We were thinking about putting in a larger bar,” Boland says, “and we realized we could do it out here. We didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the food inside, so we also decided to add a kitchen. The whole thing evolved into something completely different than the original idea.” Now high-top tables and a room-length bar fill the space, giving this area a party vibe. When the side awnings are rolled up and the patio is fully open to the outdoors, you might mistake Mount Desert for an island much further south. The polished-concrete bar is a hugely popular place to take a seat and order a cocktail along with hot or cold tapas to share. The spicy tuna salad is a beauty, with big slices of pan-seared tuna paired with avocado, papaya, and toasted chile, lime, and cilantro dressing. Seared sea scallops over grilled green beans with shiitake mushroom sauce is another winner. Both plates are vibrant and flavorful, practically begging for a margarita.

The Parrilla, manned by chef Aaron Horvath, has its own menu of grilled foods, written on a chalkboard by the open kitchen. The aroma of food cooking on the Parrilla is mouth-watering, and every item coming from the grill is a hit. Ordering
the mixed grill lets you cover all the bases, tasting everything from duck wings to house-made sausage and seasonal grilled vegetables. Local produce is used as much as possible, much of it from Mandala Farm, just off the island in Gouldsboro. Boland also tends a small organic garden near the restaurant, shortening the distance from farm to fork.

The team’s attention to turning out enticing, tantalizing food is undeniable. But what is also evident at every turn is the consideration given to thoughtful service and welcoming hospitality. Everyone I encountered at Havana, from Enrique, a server straightening place settings at each table, to Alyssa, the smiling face at the front of the restaurant, is committed to making guests feel comfortable. “Whatever we can do to make the experience work better for our guests, we do it,” says Boland.

For years, Boland, his wife, Deirdre Swords, and their two young daughters have spent most of each winter in Mexico, at San Cristobal, the colonial city high up in the mountains of Chiapas. While there, they visit markets, explore coffee and chocolate plantations, and eat out a lot. “The summer is so hectic that having downtime afterwards is a necessity. Being in Mexico re-energizes us for the next season, “ he says. But for the first time in 20 years, they made the decision to stay in Maine through this past winter, keeping Havana open. “We missed our friends in Chiapas, but it was a great chance to get some folks into the restaurant who hadn’t been here in years. Bar Harbor is a much more vibrant year- round community now,” says Boland.

And Havana is part of it. The restaurant is just a short walk from the center of town, but it’s a world away from what you expect to find on this island.