Monday, July 20, 2009

Asia de Cuba's Daring Pairings: Ritmos Cubanos (Cuban Rhythms)

This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate. (More pictures there, too.)

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 chachacha, 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 complented one another well.

Calamari salad.

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.

Stella Artois & Caipirinha.

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 withou the lemons (I prefer limes) but I approve of the long sugar cane, which provided a delicate touch. My friend had a Belgium 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 in a piping hot thickness. We all scooped up seconds (and thirds) of the avocado fruit salsa, which was mashed together like guacamole.

Honey-Rhum Glazed Pot Roast of Pork.

The Honey-Rhum Glazed Pot Roast of Pork was served with sauteed 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.

Cuban Opera.

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.

Coconut Invasion.

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't dish the dough and/or enjoy having their inner culinary aficionado sated, as the prices are momentarily slashed. Take advantage of the price fixe menu, generous portions and zesty melange of flavors that fuses the best of East and West.

Final Remarks/Outtakes:
Ube had a stuffed look on her face. She totally zoned out at the end.
D-man was satisfied, as usual, but I discovered that night that even he has his limits. This is the guy whom we affectionately dub 'the human vacuum' with his seemingly bottomless pit of a stomach, but even he was having difficulty finishing off dessert. Which goes to show you that the portions are more than generous.
G: I'm not eating for the rest of the week. I need to get rid of some fat.
S (me): I...can't [eat anymore]. (rubs stomach)

Rating: 4.5 stars. The portions were twice the amount any normal human being should consume in one meal. However, we were all able to sample an assortment of dishes, which was quite appealing. The $35 dinner price fixe turned into $60ish for me (including tax & tip). My drink was kind of expensive and too lemony for my taste, but I was so thrilled with the dining experience that I kindly overlooked that flaw.

Asia de Cuba
237 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016

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