Asia de Cuba – They Certainly Bento-ver Backwards for Us

Asia de Cuba
St Martins Lane Hotel
45 St Martins Lane
London WC2N 4HX
Online Reservations

Bento boxes at £15-£25/person or ‘family style’ starters from £16-£29/dish and ‘family-style’ main courses from £26-£74(!)/dish

A stunning interior, nice vibe, excellent and relaxed service & some potentially very good food

A stunning interior, nice vibe, excellent and relaxed service & some potentially very good food

The Back Story

I had booked tickets to see the new Derren Brown show, Enigma, a few months ago, and thought we could make a nice evening out of it by having a quick bite to eat beforehand. Asia de Cuba (ADC), located inside the St Martins Lane hotel, has always appealed to me, but for one reason or another, I have never made it to the London branch of this international chain of restaurants.

I visited the New York restaurant many moons ago. It is located inside the still hip Morgans hotel and is a truly iconic restaurant with an amazing space that is dominated by a 30 ft. long alabaster table and a 15 ft. tall photo light box. The restaurant itself is the brainchild of Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill Management, which also controls a string of other restaurants across the world. So far as I can tell, most or all of the ADC restaurants are connected to Philippe Starck designed hotels, so are necessarily highly stylish in that 90’s minimalist chic sort of way.

The food, as you will have inferred from the name, is meant to be a fusion of Asian and Latino cuisines. So, this means “…asian cuisine and cooking techniques, infused with the flavours of the tropical fruits and vegetables, Latin spices and the bounty of the Caribbean” (to quote from our menu).  Sounds right up my alley…

First Impressions

We arrived around 6.00pm, and the restaurant was pretty empty – go figure. I immediately liked the look of the room. Sure, I guess it is slightly dated, but it is pure Philippe Starck, down to the bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling above each table and the soft beige colors throughout. I loved the chunky columns speckled throughout the restaurant, some with shelves of books and knick-knacks, some with random framed photos and artwork, and some in padded out a leather-looking covering. The blonde wood chairs and white backed chairs and light wood flooring all work well together and, with the club chill-out music playing in the background, it achieves a very pleasant overall vibe.

We were greeted by a cheerful, smiling young woman who found our reservation straight away and handed us over to the guy that seemed to be in charge, who escorted us to our table. It is a split-level restaurant, and our table was near the back of the slightly raised area of the room, which afforded a nice view of the entire restaurant. We noticed that there were a number of larger tables along the wall, which looked comfortable and spacious, and we noted that this would probably be a good spot for groups.

After being seated, our waitress, a pleasant lady from Amiens (in Picardie, Northern France), asked us if we had ever dined at ADC before, and as we hadn’t, she then explained the ins and outs of the menu. If you order between 12.00pm – 6.45pm (not 7.00pm as it says on the downloadable menu from their website), you can between choose one of their four bento boxes. These all start with a small bowl of soup and have four different dishes served inside them. The alternative is to order from the fairly large a la carte menu, which can be quite pricey. The starters and main courses from the main menu are served ‘family style’, meaning that they are fairly large plates that are meant to be shared amongst the table.

As we were a bit pressed for time, we opted for the ‘Anniversary’ and ‘Signature’ bento boxes, and ordered a glass of Sancerre and Viognier.

Did the Flavors Fuse?

The soup came out a few minutes after we ordered.  It was a clear broth full of different vegetables including spring onions and Enoki mushrooms. It was very bland and had no bite to it, though you could tell the vegetables were very fresh.  The miso soups from the likes of Itsu are much better, so a bit of a waste of stomach space to be honest. 4/10.

My ‘Anniversary’ box (not quite sure why it’s called that…) was made up of four components and cost £15.

  • Grilled Salmon with Wasabi Sour CreamThe salmon was served plain: it was cooked well, was still moist and had some basic seasoning.  It came alive when it was dipped into the smooth wasabi sour cream, which had a good horseradish kick to it. 6/10.
  • Crispy Beef Dumplings with Plum SauceThis was probably the best dish of the night. Perfectly fried dumplings – extremely crisp brown shells – with a succulent ball of seasoned minced beef in the middle and a dab of sweet and sour plum sauce drizzled over each one (there were 3 in total). 8/10.
  • Thai Salad of Avocado, Shredded Coconut, Orange Segments and Asian Greens with a Hot & Sour DressingVery unusual and fresh salad. A lot of spice to the dressing, with an underlying smoky flavour.  Didn’t look like much, but really enjoyed it. 7/10.
  • Havana Noodles with Red Peppers, Green Peppers & MushroomsSlightly thicker than Singapore noodles, these were done very well. The right level of saltiness, offset by the green and red peppers. They were good enough to eat on their own or equally nice with the salmon. 6/10.
  • The house Viognier, which was well chilled, complemented this box nicely, but no aspect of it stood out as being particularly noteworthy.

The missus went for the ‘Signature’ box, which also had four parts to it, and was a bit more at £20.

  • Lemongrass Skewered Chicken with Coconut Thai Chilli Marinade, Grilled Pineapple and LycheeThis was the best dish of the box.  A successful combination of tender chicken and sweet chilli flavors. 7/10.
  • Asia de Cuba Calamari Salad: Crispy Calamari with Chayote, Hearts of Palm, Banana, Cashews, Roquette, Radicchio and Sesame Orange DressingThis dish was disappointing as it is meant to be one of the signatures of the restaurant. The salad side of it was fine, and the orange dressing kept you wanting to come back for more, but the calamari was like chewing on a tire – total rubber and totally unacceptable. It killed the dish. 3/10.
  • Tunapica: Tuna Tartare Picadillo Style with Spanish Olive, Blackcurrants, Almonds and Coconut-soy, Lime Vinaigrette + Wonton CrispsThis was where the Signature really went wrong.  The tartare would have been fine on its own, but the olive tapenade was just too powerful and far too salty for everything else and completely dominated each bite in your mouth. Tuna tartare is a delicate thing and needs subtle enhancements, not Mike Tyson’s Olive Punchout. When you did isolate pieces of tartare from the olives and catch a raisin in your mouth, it was not half bad, but you shouldn’t have to do that! 2/10.
  • Plantain Fried Rice with Avocado Salsa. Considering the quality of the noodles in the other box, the standard of the rice was shocking. Mrs. LF said it tasted like it was old rice, and it was certainly dry, characterless and not even as good as the fried rice you’d find in most Chinese take-aways. It was a shame, because we both love plantains – but the flavour just didn’t show up. You just can’t screw up simple rice in a place that is serving main courses of up to £72! 2/10.
  • Mrs. LF’s Sancerre was very dry, acidic and citrusy, so maybe not the best pairing for the fusion fare on offer.

After I ate the bits of the Signature box that my missus refused to finish (I was hungry, man!), another waiter came over and asked how everything was and whether we would like to look at the desserts. We still had time, and my stomach was still way too empty, so we obliged. As we were pondering, he quickly stopped by again and gave us his one recommendation, which he said he LOVED. He also showed us that there were ‘bento’ portion desserts (£5 each) which we could split, as opposed to the normal portion desserts (£12). Now that we had the necessary excuse, we took his advice, which is the Cuban Coffee Brownie, and also ordered a Cuban Opera. We also fancied a sweet wine, and opted for a Barolo Chinato (£13/glass) as we had never seen a sweet Barolo on a menu before.

Well, the desserts certainly didn’t disappoint visually. They were pretty big, too, and we were worried that they had misunderstood us and given us the £12 versions. I started with the Cuban Opera, which is a rich chocolate cake layered with milk chocolate butter cream and coffee mouse with coffee-brittle ice cream. I thought it was excellent – the crisp biscuit layer interacted perfectly with the rich butter cream and coffee flavors. The brittle ice cream was my favorite part, though. It had a streak of bitterness to it which cut through the cream and little crispy bits of brittle throughout it. A very satisfying dessert. 7/10.

Mrs. LF, however, said that I hadn’t tasted anything yet, and seemed to be completely blown away by the Cuban Coffee Brownie, which was finished with a chocolate fudge sauce, a Kahlua glaze and some fudge brownie ice cream. Once my teeth sunk into the gooeyness of this creation, I knew instantly that she was right. This was a seriously naughty, rich and delicious dessert that had been pulled off really well. After tasting that, my Opera seemed more America’s Got Talent standard than Pavarotti and just tasted sweet and buttery. So the brownie really took the ‘cake’. 8/10.

The dessert wine was truly one of the oddest drinks I’ve ever tried. It tasted like cloves and herbs mostly, and just didn’t go with what we were having. We came to the conclusion that this type of wine can only be good in the winter, maybe when served with Christmas pudding, and could best equate it with some variation on mulled wine…although it didn’t have anything added to it whatsoever. Weird! 3/10.

The Verdict

The cynical part of me was expecting the evening to be 90% style and 10% substance, as I had heard that ADC was riding on its past reputation, and that it was all about the scene, not the service of the food.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised on many counts. As mentioned above, it is a very cool space, and I personally love the design. The service throughout the meal was first rate. The staff were interactive, relaxed and gave a very personal service which was efficient at the same time. For instance, when they discovered we did not like the dessert wine, they came over and professionally smelled it, then confirmed there was nothing wrong with it and that this was how it is meant to taste. But they offered us a glass of anything else we wanted on the house, as we didn’t like it ourselves. The waiters did have a habit of congregating and chatting to each other, but our service certainly didn’t suffer because of it.

Food-wise, a few of the dishes we had were very tasty, and the desserts were outstanding, plus good value at £5 each. However, some of the food was pretty dire, too, given the type of restaurant ADC is purporting to be. The ‘Anniversary’ bento box was priced about right at £15, considering you’re paying a premium for the ambiance of the place, but the ‘Signature’ box at £20, wasn’t very good value as there was really only one dish worth eating in it. The wine we choose wasn’t particularly good, but to be fair, it is more of a cocktail place and there is a limited range of wines that go well with this type of fusion fare.

Because it was a comfortable and fun place to be, I am tempted to return another time and order off of the a la carte menu, although I would be scared of picking a bad dish, especially given the high prices of some items on the menu. If I do go back, it’ll probably be with a small group of friends and I will make sure we get a special offer from Top Table or the like to make it a bit more generous on the purse strings.

Oh, and by the way, the Derren Brown show was phenomenal!


Ambiance: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 5/10

Wine: 4/10 (because of the dessert wine!)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only eaten at Asia de Cuba (London) once.*

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