Viva Havana!

By Benjamin Baugh

It’s a place that offers its patrons the clarity of a Hemmingway novel, whose ambiance makes the diner feel at home and every mouthful of food bursts with a flavorful explosion.

Havana Country Club is located in The Villages in the Village of Hemmingway, creating a dining experience where friends can eat, laugh and discuss the day’s events in an environment that’s welcoming and comfortable.

The restaurant continues to evolve, and its transformation places an emphasis on the customer, welcoming their feedback, by providing meals to satisfy even the most fastidious of palates.

The transformation began over three years ago when Vinny  Issa assumed the role of director of operations. He brings more than four decades of experience in the restaurant industry to Havana Country Club, having specialized in seafood and international cuisine.

Throughout his life, Issa has carried three things: quality, service and clearness. And he treats his employees the way he wishes to be treated, with all of those variables being found at Havana.

It’s that camaraderie between the employees that makes them seem more like family than professional colleagues nd resonates with diners, making the restaurant feel like home. The relaxed atmosphere sets a tone creating an experience that will make the diner want to return routinely. Some of the patrons can be seen dining at Havana twice a day, six times a week, said Issa.

As director of operations, Issa works closely with the restaurant’s chef Matthew Street, and their outstanding rapport has been critical to the restaurant’s success. It’s that communication that makes a difference, understanding what the patron likes to eat and what the food should taste like.

The cuisine itself is evocative of a different era, a familiar one, with Issa placing an emphasis on his experience, with many of the savory plates being found on menus from the 1970s.

“The customers love it because they’re mostly my age,” said Issa, whose sense of humor and warmth, add to the overall dining experience.

The interior of the restaurant is spacious and welcoming, featuring tasteful décor and an oval-shaped bar. The customers are familiar with one another creating a pleasant atmosphere.

“We have elite bartenders and service,” said Issa. “They’ve been with me since day one, and they’re not going anywhere.”

Many diners choose to sit outside so they can enjoy the idyllic environment that surrounds Havana, and its ingenuous nature accents the restaurant’s beauty. Live entertainment in the breezeway underscores the restaurant’s commitment to making the customer happy.

“We do whatever it takes to bring them in,” said Issa.

Havana has a diverse number of menu options. It’s lobster night on Mondays; Italian night (arguably the most popular) on Tuesdays; seafood nights Wednesday and Friday. On Thursdays, patrons can enjoy prime rib. Saturday is the catch and cut of the day, and customers can enjoy specials seven days a week, said Issa.  The menu changes every few months.

Chef Matthew Street boasts that every item on the menu, appetizers included, is prepared from scratch. Havana’s diversity in its offerings provides entrees not found anywhere else in the area, creating a ‘wow’ factor with distinctive and singing flavors.

Street, who has been a chef for 15 years, puts his own spin on Issa’s classics, creating a dynamic that’s funky and different. Street’s presentations make each entrée as visually appealing as they are delicious.

“We have stuffed flounder on the menu, and stuffed flounder has been around since Vinny’s been around,” said Street. “What I do is stuff it with crab, shrimp, spinach, a lot of different flavors. I put a spinach cream sauce on it, so it has a vibrant, bright greenness to it. It really pops out when you see it. The customers know it’s going to be good.”

The Korean Tacos and Shrimp Francese are two entrees that are worthy of return visits, making dining a memorable experience that will resonate long after a customer leaves the table.

“I think a reason that we have a lot of success here is that we put a lot of heart into this place,” said Street. “We love seeing it grow. We love seeing the business thrive. I go out and touch tables, and hear from the customers that the meal is fantastic, and that’s exactly what I do it for. That’s why I love doing it.”

The Korean Steak Tacos, are made from 34-day aged prime rib, cooked and roasted in the oven and shaved very thin before entering the honey-soy marination process which lasts 24-48 hours. The meat is so tender it melts in your mouth. Havana serves the steak in tortillas, which are accented by red cabbage, green scallions, sriracha and sesame seeds.

“I use to run these (Korean Tacos) as a lunch special,” said Street. “It wasn’t on my menu, but every time I ran it as a lunch special, I’d sell like 50 at a time. The next time the menu change came about, I was like, ‘I’m going to put them on there.’ They fly.”

IF YOU GO:
Havana is open Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.  It’s located at 2484 Odell Circle in The Villages. For more information, call 352-430-3200 or you can access their website at www.havanacc.com.

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