Asia de Cuba Wows in South Beach
Located adjacent to the lofty lobby of the Mondrian South Beach, Asia de Cuba starts out with a Marcel Wanders-designed interior that includes a fancifully furnished white-on-white interior on white marble floors. There are crystal chandeliers set within big golden bells, bulging columns that look like giant chess pawns, elegantly stenciled mirrors, and a 24-seat communal table ringed by high-backed chairs. We quaffed cocktails of varying infusions and hues while seated on the outdoor terrace, and witnessed a breathtaking sunset over the stunning bay and poolscape, replete with trippy topiary cabanas. As one of my guests who recently moved from Miami to Salt Lake City noted, anyone from her newly adopted state of Utah (or, for that matter, from just about anywhere) would be blown away by this pristine panorama and sexy scene — to the extent they'd likely remember dining here for the rest of their lives.
Yet to the jaded South Beach regular, there's something of a been-there, done-that quality to the place. This whimsical white wonderland effect was radical when Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck pulled it off at the Delano in 1995 and has been mimicked many times since. Then Jeffrey Chodorow delivered China Grill, and with it new notions (for here) of Asian fusion fare and of the contemporary American restaurant as urban entertainment center. In 1997, Chodorow defined the fusion further with the first Asia de Cuba in New York City (there are now locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London). Nowadays the cuisine, while boldly inventive, brashly presented, and intensely flavored, doesn't break any new ground either — although a Salt Laker's lick would likely be different.
When it comes to pre-dinner bread, Asia de Cuba takes the Asian route — meaning no bread at all or, for that matter, shrimp crackers or fried wonton noodles with duck sauce. As they'd say in Cuba, nada. Regarding restaurants and homes alike, it is simply a matter of being a good host to ensure no guest goes hungry while awaiting the meal. This holds even more true when that meal begins with two starters totaling $51 (without tax or tip).
As with China Grill, waiters reel off a spiel about how the plates are family-size and meant for sharing. On one occasion, it was suggested that two appetizers and two to three entrées should suffice for our party of three. I'm all in favor of the staff advising against overordering (another way of saying overeating), and indeed a two-and-two approach proved to be enough. Yet it is really the plates and presentation here that are oversize; portions are surely generous but, with certain exceptions, not larger than at other restaurants where entrées start at $35. Four vertically pointed spears of crab croquetas, for instance, if reshaped, would add up to the usual fat sort of crab cake normally encountered. It also satisfied in a common Old Bay/bread-filler way, but the cost was $27 — a price that had me visualizing gratification more in the manner of jumbo lumps of crab.
Fried wonton squares form four levels of a "tunapica" tower of tuna tartare picadillo style — flecked with teeny black currants, almond slivers, coconut flakes, and Spanish olives in soy-lime juice dressing. For all of its tropical traces, the tartare was surprisingly flat; take away the wontons and you're left with a rather paltry portion. I enjoyed a superior version a decade ago at the Asia de Cuba in San Francisco's Clift Hotel (or did it just seem better back then because it was newer?).
Salads are certainly shareable. The signature calamari salad comes piled high and wide with chicory and radicchio leaves wet with orange-sesame dressing and tangled with chayote, palm hearts, bananas, cashews, and crunchy squid rings and tentacles — probably fewer than you'd find in a regular order of fried calamari, but it is a delicious mélange that, like much of the food here, is pumped with a panoply of contrasting textures and flavors. A hefty helping of greens with orange segments, avocado, and flakes of fresh coconut likewise sated, especially with the plate being ringed by paper-thin circles of beef carpaccio dappled with hot/sour Thai dressing.
Entrées, too, touch upon all taste points, starting with a juicy wedge of "sustainable" Chilean sea bass speckled with coconut and mustard seed atop jalapeño-plum coulis. Rich, creamy flan flecked with crab and corn accompanied the fish, as did a medley of island vegetables roasted with cilantro chimichurri. The cost of the public's never-ending love of sea bass is that the fish faces extinction. The cost of being able to enjoy a scrumptious, sustainable serving without the guilt: $54.
Other main courses packed just as much punch without hitting the wallet quite as hard. A pounded palomilla of seared lamb was luscious with a sofrito of stir-fried Japanese eggplant and peppers; duck breast and leg were moistly roasted and heightened with hoisin, aromatic star-anise-like spices, and a finely minced papaya salsa; and firm but tender planks of pork "pot roast" pleased with a sweet honey-rum glaze and Asian-spiced bok choy plugged with nubs of bacon (dainty, delicate enoki mushrooms got lost in the shuffle). As previously noted, the flavors here aren't shy; the pork and lamb dishes, however, came dangerously close to being overly salty.
I recently took 1 Bleu to task for charging $36 for a filet mignon from Cargill Meat Solutions' Sterling line; Asia de Cuba serves the same brand of New York strip for $46. Cargill's Sterling steaks are not bad, but at these prices, the meat needs to be a whole lot better than not bad. Plus, the use of so prosaic a product might cause one to call into question the quality of other comestibles.
While accompaniments on the entrée plates here were uncommonly good, an à la carte order of plantain fried rice with avocado salad arrived lukewarm, with a simple soy-accented taste to match the bland beige color. Sprightly dressed wedges of avocado on top were perfectly ripe and tasty, but pairing the fruit with fried rice doesn't improve either one. Chinese long beans with big chunks of chicharrones would've been great had the cook used a lighter hand with the soy.
Waiters smartly articulated the menu and alertly attended to our needs, and service was a couple of notches above what is generally expected at SoBe hot spots. Yet when Asia de Cuba gets crazy busy (not a rare occurrence), there just aren't enough workers on the floor to get things done in a timely manner.
We selected a couple of the more conservative desserts — specifically chocolate layer cake and coconut layer cake. The first is old-fashioned, with fondant icing and sturdy buttercream layers, and we loved the scoop of intense coffee ice cream that came alongside. We also relished coconut ice cream that leaned against the latter cake, which was soft, fluffily iced, and impeccably coconutty. These treats are eminently splittable among at least two or three people apiece, which can tame the tab a tad.
Regarding that final bill: Like the distinctiveness of the meal and setting, this is something visitors from other regions of the country will likely recall for the remainder of their lives. Not to sound elitist, but I was able to get over the shock within days.
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