Downstairs, Habana is another story, all romantic shadows and twinkling baroque chandeliers and gleaming wood, with narrow grotto-like semi-private rooms under the sidewalk. It's worth a trip just to check out an architectural rarity: many buildings of the period have filled in their under-sidewalk caverns, originally built to take deliveries. "Cafe" was dropped from Habana's name when it moved over from Washington Street--through the years it has evolved into more of a nightclub--but it does offer a short menu of sliders and tacos prepared in the basement kitchen that Vera also oversees.
Vera--or Chef Gabriel as he likes to be called--is as ambitious as the upstairs restaurant. Growing up in Guayaquil, Ecuador's large port city, he was expected to follow in his mother's footsteps and become a doctor, but instead apprenticed himself at the Guayaquil Hilton and simultaneously went to cooking school. When Guayaquil ran out of challenges--"I wasn't comfortable just being a good chef in my country; I wanted to be one of the best"--he came to Warren to live with an aunt and uncle and continued working two or sometimes three jobs at once, all the while finding time to compete in ice sculpture, vegetable carving, and the Culinary Olympics. Also called the International Exhibition of Culinary Art, the competition is held every four years in Germany, and Vera, before he accepted this job, made sure he'd be allowed time off this month to make his third trip there, this time as part of an eight-member Michigan delegation.