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All That Glitters 

Asia de Cuba

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
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The year 2001 started off as the least remarkable in recent memory. It's not like '98, when big things were coming and you could feel a certain excitement in the air. Nor is it like last year, when the big things were here and you either loved the dot-coms or hated the dot-coms or complained about how tired you were of hearing about the Blue-Shirted Menace (that being yet another way to talk about dot-coms). Now we've got a year without any real focus other than a whole lot of negativity.

Before the papers were filled with stories about last week's tragedy, every article seemed to be about how the economy sucks, rents suck, traffic sucks, the 49ers will probably suck, and the weather isn't as bad as it could be but still sucks. The gray pages featured endless tirades about how dirty the city is. Some San Franciscans claimed to be unsure why they live here in the first place, and others -- I never thought it would come to this -- said they're not only moving to L.A., but also, God help them, liking it.

In other words, I'm ready for 2002 to begin, and I bet a lot of you are, too. If you're one of those chicsters who's inclined to seek out the latest, hottest scene, you've got a brand-new playground to cavort in, courtesy of Ian Schrager's revamping of the Clift hotel. In case you missed it, the hype was staggering: grand-opening parties, celebrity sightings, horrendous lines to get into the newly swanky Redwood Room. There's also a place to eat -- Asia de Cuba -- an addition to the New York, L.A., and London Asia de Cubas; our version seems to have become San Francisco's restaurant of the moment.

The great irony is that Asia de Cuba is as out-of-date as a restaurant of the moment could be. Its extravagant prices seem to have been set last year. The fusion thing (Asian-Latin, in this case) is certainly nothing new. And, most disappointingly, a New York Times restaurant review from nearly four years ago describes many of the same dishes being served at San Francisco's Asia de Cuba today. Even more ironic: Though the food doesn't achieve the sophistication one would expect given the prices, I can still recommend the place, if a bit grudgingly. Asia de Cuba won't send you out the door filled with the questions that often follow more cutting-edge forays into the culinary arts (How did the chef do that? And how much will it cost me to have it done again?). Still, most of the food is pretty good, and the family-style portions are immense. More important, the experience combines high-end professionalism with a lighthearted casualness and some of the toniest surroundings you'll ever encounter, which adds up to a hell of a good time.

Pass through the glass doors into the lobby of the Clift and you'll encounter all manner of strange and delightful furnishings: a little green seatlike thing with its very own belly button, trios of flickering candles, a chair so surreally huge that it might have been designed for a 12-foot-tall society matron. The Redwood Room now comes complete with computer-generated portraits, a kinky, house-y soundtrack, and waitresses who look delicious in their cleavage-revealing evening dresses. At Asia de Cuba, next door, the décor is similar, if more sedate: gorgeous velvet curtains that match the redwood paneling and a giant, mirror-topped, cross-shaped tasting table. Our waiter showed no bosom -- for which I was grateful -- but was as friendly a server as I've ever met. He was so chatty and charming that he could probably have talked a vegan into ordering the $56 porterhouse steak.

If I have a complaint about the layout, it's that the tables for two are so close together that your neighbors may seem like tablemates. For example: To my left sat an older couple from West Palm Beach, who quickly noticed how much time we spent discussing the food.

"Are you in the industry?" asked Madame.

"Sort of," I told her.

"What type of food do they serve at your restaurant?"

"All kinds."

To drink at Asia de Cuba is to face a myriad of choices, and the prices are unimaginably steep. The wine list of 100 or so bottles starts in the mid-$30s; some 35 rums, premium sakes, and an extensive list of cocktails are also costly. In the last category, I can recommend both the invigoratingly citrusy Caipirinha and the lychee martini (lychees shaken with vodka), a crisp, fruity, elegant sip. My friend Petra's Asian pear martini (light rum, poire Williams pear liqueur, and fresh pear) struck less cleanly -- the drink tasted musty, and needed a sharper note to offset the sweetness of the rum.

The appetizers we tried needed the most work. Our least favorite was the ropa vieja of duck -- shreds of meat stewed in a cloying port-hoisin sauce, served with lettuce cups and still more hoisin on the side. The oxtail spring rolls -- hulking things more like rice paper- wrapped oxtail burritos than starters -- were moist, rich, and pleasantly spicy. However, I could have done without the bell peppers in the rolls themselves and the simplistic black bean/cucumber/ tomato relish, both of which seemed too homey for the price. The lobster pot stickers were the only starters not large enough to be entrees; they provided the finest taste of the night. Tender dumplings came with a sprouted quinoa salad and two excellent sauces -- a delicate lobster roe and an earthy, lightly smoky, undeniably exquisite vanilla bean-spiced rum sauce.

As they finished their Chino-Latino spice-roasted Peking duck, our friends at the next table made an interesting comment: It was a tasty bird, they said, but not quite as tasty as the duck they had recently shared at a little Chinese joint back in Florida. In my experience, that's often how it goes when fancy American chefs do ethnic food (though the best Chinese-style duck I've ever had was at Hawthorne Lane), and it helped put our two entrees into context. At first taste, I wasn't too crazy about my Hunan-style wok-crispy fish, which seemed bland compared to what I might have gotten at a Hunan-style restaurant. But it grew on me. The whole, deep-fried bass was stuffed with a luscious crab escabèche (chilled marinade), then topped with a creamy red pepper sauce. The palomillo of lamb was, again, a bit more straightforward than one might expect for the price, but it was still a satisfying plate. Giant sheets of mallet-flattened lamb came to life in a garlicky marinade, the meat topped with a simple, pleasing stir-fry of onions, bell peppers, and Japanese eggplant and served with a slightly bitter watercress salad.

Desserts were (what else?) très chers, but more worth the high cost: The one we ordered could have fed a party of any size. It was called cielo de coco, which translated as two architecturally impressive slabs of banana/coconut/white chocolate seven-layer cake served with rich, caramel-y dulce de leche ice cream. I'm not sure where the fusion came in on that dish, but I can say with all certainty that it was a monstrously delectable plate to which no reasonable human being could object. Our departure yielded a final bright note when I stopped by the above-mentioned big chair in the lobby and asked a hotel employee if I could sit there. He said I couldn't -- apparently, people have been wearing out the antique fabric -- but then made me a deal: He'd walk away, and I could pretend we never had that conversation.

Normally, I don't give a Swig about A-lists, "in" crowds, and other such madness, but if you ask me, the big chair at the Clift is a truly regal perch, and you ain't nobody in this town until you've sat there.

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Greg Hugunin

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