“Daring Pairings: Ritmos Cubanos (Cuban Rhythms)” – Review of Asia de Cuba
BY SARAH IP
On a recent trip to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, I became accustomed to dining al fresco at one of the local eateries down the street, where brisk bachatas blared through giant speakers. Local bands strummed a tune two feet away while I feasted on oxtail stew and plantains – a smooth Presidente beer in hand. A supreme feeling of leisurely bliss washed over me.
That’s the same state of mind I was in when I dined at Asia de Cuba for New York Restaurant Week. Except this was not the Dominican Republic – it was Murray Hill, Manhattan. And instead of bachata, my audio senses were under the influence of the slow, romantic intonations of the chachachá layered over rich, husky vocals, now swerving into a fierce rumba beat, followed by a bongo-laden mambo.
If suspension of reality is the goal, Asia de Cuba scores a win with its draped cream-colored curtained entrance, soft orange lighting and upbeat Cuban music. Plush white seating is a nod to the recurring lounge theme that pervades the restaurant.
Dim lights create a relaxed mood for stressed out urbanites to clink glasses and enjoy some feisty fusion food. One long communal table in the center is flanked by high bar stools covered with ethnic patterns, each cut from a different cloth. Our waiter, James, a dapper-dressed 20-something in a starched white button up and spiffy black vest, greeted us effusively.
Asia de Cuba believes that sharing is caring.
As a party of four, we got to choose 2 appetizers, 2 entrees and 2 desserts. First up were the appetizers. The Tunapica was, in essence, a Tuna tartare picadillo style with Spanish olives, black currants, almonds, coconut, soy-lime vinaigrette and wonton crisps. This was a very daring and complex dish. The sweet-n-tart flavors really complemented one another well.
The Calamari Salad included crispy calamari with chayote, hearts of palm, bananas, cashews, chicory and radicchio, topped with sesame orange dressing. The calamari was soft and had a distinct ‘Asian’ flavor.
The exhaustive spirits menu made it hard to decide on a drink, but I settled on the Caipirinha($15), since I was in a Latin kind of mood. It went down strong, and I could have done without the lemons (I prefer limes) but I approve of the long sugar cane, which provided a delicate touch. My friend had a Belgian Stella Artois ($8), one of the few beers he will drink.
Entrees came next. The Cuban BBQ Chicken wowed me with its savory combination of Thai coconut sticky rice, avocado fruit salsa and tamarind sauce. The fine-grained sticky rice arrived steaming to a piping hot thickness. We all scooped up seconds (and thirds) of the avocado fruit salsa, which was mashed together like guacamole.
The Honey-Rhum Glazed Pot Roas of Pork was served with sautéed Shanghai bok choy, fried plantains and enoki mushrooms. I love mushrooms of any kind, so the enoki was a pleasant, crunchy addition. The vegetables hungrily soaked up the sauce, which tasted slightly like turkey stock but somehow worked. The pork was truly an explosion of flavor (akin to Fourth of July fireworks, for the mouth) but came off a tad too strong.
As the saying goes, ‘There’s always room for dessert.’ The Cuban Opera tantalized with its Devil’s food cake base, kahlua, milk chocolate and coffee mousse. It came with a scoop of caramel-coffee ice cream flecked with small toffee bits. The rich chocolate was a decadent treat but tasted best in combination with the ice cream.
The Coconut Invasion looked just that: Tri-layered coconut cake with shredded coconut on top (the epitome of the word ‘coconut’), creamy coconut ice cream and warm chocolate sauce. We failed at finishing this one and I ended up taking it home where I found it promptly missing (i.e. devoured) the next day by my sister, who harbors a not-so-secret sweet tooth.
Asia de Cuba has expanded its Restaurant Week menu until Labor Day (including Saturdays) – proof that the fine dining industry isn’t doing so well mid-recession. However, this bodes well for those who can dish the dough and/or enjoy having their inner culinary aficionado sated, as all the prices are momentarily slashed. Take advantage of the price fixe menu, generous portions and zesty mélange of flavors that fuses the best of East and West.