For a moment, when I sat down to dinner the other night at Asia de Cuba, I felt that I was back in boarding school. We were seated on high stools in the middle of a big, crowded communal table. But boarding school was never like this. To my left, as far as I could see, were young women; to my right, a few men were wedged in among them. Groups of men were seated at low tables and white banquettes around the room, the walls were hung with backlit white curtains, and upstairs, through glass panels, you could see more people staring down from tables or moving around the bar. It was only 8 o’clock and the place was packed.
We had arrived to find a crowd behind a velvet rope and a doorman on the street, not quite what you expect in front of a restaurant. Luckily, we had reserved. The doorman checked our names off the list, and we pushed through billowing curtains to a desk where we were stopped again, this time by a tall, pretty clerk with an English accent. At last we were cleared and made our way not to a discothèque with a mirrored ball, but to a two-level dining room that was every bit as raucous.
Asia de Cuba, which is located in Ian Schrager’s Morgans Hotel on lower Madison Avenue and owned by Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill, is not like any restaurant I’ve ever been to. No chic, trendy or up-to-the minute detail has been overlooked, whether it is funny cocktails, rare rums, unlikely wines (such as Gewürztraminer from Rhode Island) or startling food, a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisines served family-style in a cool marble-and-white setting designed by Philippe Starck.
The restaurant literally glows. Its main table, a 50-foot slab of marble, is lighted from below; across the way are glass counters with brightly colored exotic drinks waiting to be picked up, and one end of the room is dominated by a hologram of mountains and a waterfall. Upstairs is a rum and cigar bar. (There are two dozen rums on the menu, some of which, like the Appleton Estate 12-Year we tried, taste like fine cognac.)
My friend, a tall blonde editor, had heard the long table at Asia de Cuba was a great place to meet people, and she was dressed for success in a chocolate leather pantsuit and Manolo Blahnik high-heeled boots. Around us, total strangers were jocularly exchanging tastes and discussing the food, moving about the room as if they were guests at a party.
“What kind of wine would you like?” asked my husband, looking at the list. “‘Herbaceous and citrusy’? Or ‘floral and perfumed’?”
We began with “floral and perfumed,” the Rhode Island Gewürztraminer that our waitress promised was delicious (it was).
The food at Asia de Cuba takes its inspiration from the cuisine that started in cafes in Havana and came via Miami to New York. But it is a far cry from the black beans and plantains with Chinese rice and ribs served up in funky dives on the West Side. A very far cry, in fact. Who would have thought of putting oxtail into a spring roll and serving it with a relish made with black beans, cucumber and tomato? Or making a ropa vieja from shredded duck instead of beef, wrapping it Vietnamese-style in leaves of lettuce, and serving it with a plum dipping sauce? Chef Robert Trainor tops fried rice with diced avocado and coats shrimp in a crust of coconut and panko, or fine Japanese bread crumbs, then serves it under a thatch of sugar cane. (The thatch has, alas, the texture of chewing tobacco.)
The plates are meant to be shared, family-style, and the portions are enormous. A calamari salad was enough to feed six, but it was bland, with a few crispy bits of squid nestled among a mound of greens. But the “palomillo” of lamb, pan-seared with stir-fried peppers, was pink and tender, with orange-scented watercress salad. The glazed pork piled up on plantain mash topped with fried plantains was not only impressive to look at but also good to eat. I also liked the wok-fried crispy whole fish with a creamy red pepper sauce and the grouper in a yucca crust, with roasted hearts of palm and a dark, rich, red wine-miso sauce.
Before our desserts arrived, I decided to take a look upstairs. The scene was intense around the bar, a mood that was reflected in the dialogue I overheard in the bathroom, delivered in the question-speak that seems to characterize the conversation of anyone under 30.
“He’s cute,” said a young woman in a short black dress, “but before I would have thought he was, like, not my type?”
“I think you’re becoming more, like, tempered?” responded her friend, who was puffing up her long tresses at the mirror and applying lipstick with a pencil.
“Really?” the woman looked surprised.
“You know when I first met you I didn’t like you?” She paused for a second to let this sink in. “I thought you were cold?”
Leaving them to continue their mutual querying, I returned to the table for “Coconut Invasion,” a forbidding chunk of rather dry cake served with a wonderful mango ice cream; and “Swallowing Clouds,” delicate, warm pear turnovers with cinnamon ice cream. Then the waitress brought over a plate blazing with a sparkler.
“Just like Guy Fawkes Day,” said one of my guests, who is English. I remember only too well the crowds of schoolgirls shivering in the drizzle, clutching sparklers around a bonfire to commemorate the hanging, drawing and quartering of the man who had tried to blow up the House of Parliament, and whose damp effigy burned before us.
Atop a dessert called “Latin Lover,” the sparkler fizzled, and we sank our forks into a welcoming pillow of chocolate espresso mousse. It beat anything I had at boarding school-even the jam and sponge roll that was called, not quite as poetically as the desserts at Asia de Cuba, “Dead Man’s Leg.”
Asia de Cuba
237 Madison Ave. at East 37th Street
Dress: For success
Noise level: High
Wine list: Eclectic
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch and dinner $25 to $35
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Daily 5:30 P.M. to midnight
* *: Very good
* * *: Excellent
* * * *: Outstanding
No star: Poor