It's a funny place, Asia de Cuba. The restaurants of high-end hotels tend to be safe bet, haute cuisine affairs offering the finest of fine dining at reassuringly expensive prices to a pampered international clientèle. But there's nothing safe or familiar about Asia de Cuba at London's perennially-popular St Martin's Lane Hotel; in cuisine, decor and - that dread word - concept, it's quite unlike anywhere else. And I love it.
London's Asia de Cuba, one of three worldwide (the other two, along with the majority of controversial restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow's empire of which they form part, are in the US), is a vast, impressive space. Sprawling off the still-stunning-after-all-these-years Philippe Starck-designed lobby to occupy a good half of the hotel's entire ground floor, the room's pale floors are punctuated by monumental columns, some covered with art, some with flowers and others with bookshelves upon which black-and-white TVs and transistor radios flicker and crackle away.
The eclecticism of the décor is reflected in the menu, which - the clue being in the name - offers dishes made up of 'elements' of Asia's many cuisines and the spicy, robust cooking of Cuba. If an initial glimpse at prices elicits shock (starters start at £14.50 and rise to £21; mains range from £22.50 to £49), it soon subsides when it is explained that this is sharing food not in the recently-ubiquitous small plates sense, but in its very antithesis, portions of everything being enough for two to share or more to at least have a good taste of.
In addition to those sharing-sized Starters and Mains, a Ceviche and Raw Bar section has recently been added to ride the crest of a wave of popularity in London for all things Peruvian (anyone tempted to cry 'Bandwagon!' should bear in mind that ceviche and its ilk have long been on the menu at Asia de Cuba's US restaurants but until now it was felt London wasn't ready for it).
And damn is it good, with dishes like Scottish salmon and salted avocado helado scooped up with plantain chips, and prawn, snapper and confit watermelon combining silkily fresh fish with tart marinades and just a hint of heat to thrilling effect. Yuzu brought a bright tang to grouper with Seville orange and aji amarillo - a hot yellow chilli - and all were immaculately clean on the palate. (Until 25th July, tasters of all of these can be enjoyed in a pop-up Ceviche Bar in the hotel's Front Room event space).
Fish and seafood is clearly a strength. From the starters Tunapica, a chunky tuna tartare laced with smoky black olives and subtly sweetened with raisins and coconut, was complex and intriguing while Octopus Ajillo, deep fried to a crisp and scattered with caramelized garlic, was exhilarating in its depth of flavour. Pan seared ahi served as a main course, crusted with seeds, rare in the middle and presented as neat cubes each perched on a spoonful of smooth wasabi mash, was a study in balance.
Cuban coffee-crusted rib eye was a little less remarkable but only for the subtlety of the coffee flavour; it was there, but I'd've liked it bolder. Yuca mojo fries made an interesting change from chips. Only a side order of lobster mash disappointed; over-heated, over-salted and dense, it was luxurious in conception but not in delivery.
Somehow finding room for dessert - a trio of ceviche, two starters and two mains was far too much food for two - dinner date Nick and I scoffed a bowl of tremendously good Mexican doughnuts, little brioche balls dusted with cinnamon and oozing with butterscotch sauce, with more served warm on the side for dunking. It's the kind of pudding I could happily die eating, and might if I were to ever attempt a portion to myself.
Asia de Cuba's a cocktail kind of place - there's a slick, signature Starck bar at the front of the room - and like the food they're expensive but generous, and flawless. Somehow talked into a white chocolate Martini to finish off (I was so full, and tipsy, that my ability to resist upselling from our hunky waiter Eliseo was severely diminished) it was as sticky and sweet as is to be expected but not cloying or sickly, and actually rather pleasant. Don't expect any bargains - or even good value - from the wine list, which starts in the mid-twenties and soars.
So yes, it's a funny place Asia de Cuba; it's eccentric, and pricy, and you have to enjoy sharing (or have a huge appetite and bank balance) but it's fun, excellent quality and even after ten years in business, maintains a buzz that many newer, cooler restaurants lack. Nods to trends such as the ceviche menu keep the offering fresh, and if the restaurant and hotel aren't as super-fashionable as they were for a time after opening, they're still cool enough to appeal to those who care about such things. I didn't expect to like Asia de Cuba as much as I do. But I really, really do.
Asia de Cuba, St Martin's Lane Hotel, 45 St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4HX Tel: 020 7300 5588 Website
Posted by +Hugh Wright