A friend of mine adores Asia de Cuba, Jeffrey Chodorow’s fusion restaurant where pan-Asian meets pan-Latin. When she asked where I’d like to be taken for my birthday, I thought it was the perfect choice — a restaurant she loves, and one I’d never been to.
Since it opened in 1997, Asia de Cuba has been the ultimate “scene” restaurant. Unlike many such places, the buzz hasn’t died out. Almost a decade later, the young and the gorgeous haven’t stopped flocking there. Philippe Starck’s luminous double-decker interior still turns heads. Downstairs, a communal table the length of a football field dominates the dining room. Upstairs, the comfortable bar area and additional dining tables overlook the room below.
Reviewing for the Times in 1997, Ruth Reichl wasn’t impressed. She began, “You won’t eat well at Asia de Cuba.” There wasn’t much that she liked, but she proceeded to award a star anyway—surely the best evidence of the star-inflation for which she was known:
I’m not impressed with the ropa vieja of duck, either. One of those thoroughly cross-cultural inventions, this is a variation on the classic Latin beef stew (called ropa vieja because the meat shreds like old clothes) served like Chinese minced squab in lettuce leaves. The idea is to spread the lettuce with hoisin sauce, add a few pea shoots, some thinly sliced snow peas and calabaza squash, spoon some stew on top, wrap it all up and eat it with your fingers. Nice idea, but it doesn’t taste very good.
I’m glad I didn’t read Reichl’s review before we went, as we ordered that very dish ($19.50), and it was a hit. They’ve changed the vegetable accompaniments since Reichl had it, but the idea is still the same. The server brought the duck to our table still on the bone, then shredded it and left us to wrap it into delicious pancakes with the accompanying lettuce.
Miso cured black cod ($33) comes with a black bean and edamame salad. It’s competently done, but these days every Asian-themed restaurant has a version of that dish, and the one here didn’t erase memories of the better renditions of it. My friend recommended a couple of side dishes: Plantain fried rice with avocado salad ($9.50) and Lobster boniato mash ($13.50), which both lived up to her enthusiastic endorsements.
Ruth Reichl and I do agree that the coconut cake is excellent. The restaurant served it with a candle and “Happy Birthday Marc” written in chcolate syrup on the plate. Like everything else, it was a huge piece, which even two people sharing could not finish.
The restaurant has some wonderful specialty cocktails. I loved the Coconut Cloud Martini ($12), made with coconut rum and Stoli vanilla, topped with coconut shavings. We also had the Mojito ($12), for which my friend says Asia de Cuba is deservedly famous.
Like many restaurants in the genre, Asia de Cuba serves the food family style. One appetizer, one entree, and a couple of side dishes are more than enough for two people (indeed, my friend took home leftovers). The ample portions somewhat make up for the stratospheric prices: appetizers are $19–26, entrees $23–59 (most over $30), side dishes $9–$13.50. I would prefer smaller portions and prices, which would allow a party of two to sample more of the menu without spending a fortune.
If Asia de Cuba’s food is no longer unique, it is certainly plenty of fun. Ruth Reichl’s 1997 review didn’t offer much promise, but in fact kitchen is doing a very respectable job. And if you can’t make it to New York, there are Asia de Cuba outposts in London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Asia de Cuba (237 Madison Avenue between 37th & 38th Streets, Murray Hill)