WHEN Sheffield charity runner Fabian Cruz takes to the streets carrying the Olympic torch this summer, he will feel a burst of British pride… which is ironic considering he was born in Chile and spends his days creating a little taste of the land from which his family fled more than 30 years ago.
Fabian, 46, has been head chef at Cubana tapas bar in Trippet Lane since the day it opened. But it is only fate that brought him to this country.
His father was a farmers’ union leader during political unrest in the 1970s. He was captured, imprisoned, then advised to flee the country – so came to England as a political refugee, bringing his young family with him.
Fabian went on to study engineering but when he needed extra cash he became a pot washer in a local Italian restaurant. One night the chef didn’t turn up, so he took over the cooking and that was it.
“In all those years after we fled to the countryside we had to find our own food, so we kept chickens, caught rabbits and grew our own veg. It gave me an interest,” he says.
Engineering forgotten, he learned his art in restaurants across Sheffield – until Cubana opened.
By that time he was also a seasoned charity runner. Fabian, of Gleadless, has run at least ten marathons – many of them dressed as feathered hero Super Pollo – raising around £20,000 for charities including Sheffield Children’s Hospital, Marie Curie and the Disasters Emergency Committee.
Last year he was invited to a Downing Street reception in recognition of his work and now he has been chosen to carry the Olympic torch through part of its South Yorkshire journey.
“I was amazed when I first got the phone call. I’m really proud that they picked me,” he says.
Equally delighted are his colleagues at Cubana, who will be cheering him all the way.
Fabian drew up the original menu at the tapas bar back in 2000, then he helped bosses Adrian Bagnoli and Brad Charlesworth to recruit kitchen staff ready for opening just before Christmas.
The concept was inspired by the legendary Buena Vista Social Club and over the last decade he has developed a menu that conjures up the flavours and aromas of Old Havana in all their vibrant colour.
The recent addition of live Latin music Tuesday–Thursday has sealed the recipe for success. It’s an irresistible combination, as we discover one cold, wet Tuesday evening.
We’d headed first for the Showroom, eager to sample the new head chef’s menu, only to find that most of it was unavailable and no-one seemed very interested. In search of comfort, we turned to an old favourite – and stumbled upon an exotic fiesta in the company of resident band Son Para Todos.
We haven’t booked and the place is full, but we are made welcome and the tables are shuffled round to accommodate two damp and slightly ruffled newcomers.
Unable to face wading through the second à la carte of the evening, we plump for one of two set menus. And by the time the first dish arrives, the funky rhythm and mellow surroundings have begun to work their magic.
Cubana hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s the kind of place you might find in any dusty Havana back street: all battered wooden floor, bare tables and colour-washed walls.
The latest additions are a series of funky oil paintings of the Buena Vista musicians – who have visited the bar several times over the years.
A bottle of quaffable Spanish Tempranillo (£12.95, or £3.50 a glass) puts us in the groove as the food begins to arrive. Others can choose from hot or cold tapas and accompaniments; we get a bit of everything.
First up are slices of toasted ciabatta, served with a wonderfully astringent tapenade of black olives and mixed herbs. But before we can tuck in, our waiter is back with a dish of tiger prawns (I’ll spare you all the Latin names) – juicy nuggets of succulent flesh wrapped in crisp filo pastry, deep fried and served with a garlic mayo dip.
Next is a dish of salty, crisp-fried potatoes, closely followed by one of chicken and chorizo – pieces of tender breast meat and spicy sausage – cooked with red peppers in a creamy tomato and paprika sauce.
Food is arriving thick and fast by this time: spicy long grain rice; a salad of buffalo mozzarella, thick-sliced tomatoes and aromatic basil leaves drizzled in olive oil; a bowl of sweet roasted aubergine, courgettes, peppers and olives.
And still it comes: cold Spanish omelette; a smoky pork casserole; classic albondigas meatballs, fragrant with coriander, in a red wine sauce.
This is eating out at its best. Simple food, well cooked, devoured with uninhibited enjoyment – and all for just £17.95 per person. Dessert and coffee unnecessary!
lVerdict: Live the buena vida – an atmospheric taste of downtown Cuba
lOpen: Mon-Thurs 5-12pm; Fri 5-1am; Sat midday-1am; Sun private hire
Cubana Tapas Bar, 34 Trippet Lane, Sheffield (0114) 276 0475 www.cubanatapasbar.co.uk