I’m in a large white atrium. To my right is a giant chess set, its black and white kings, queens and knights standing six feet tall and ready for battle. To my left, a trio of garden gnomes perch precariously on toadstools. It feels decidedly like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, though the ludic, Alice in Wonderland interiors are the work of Wallpaper* favourite Philippe Starck, and the scene of my reverie the St Martins Lane Hotel in London’s Covent Garden. The hotel’s restaurant, Asia de Cuba, has equally intriguing interiors, boasting book-lined pillars packed with nihilistic tomes such as The Politics of Powerlessness, monochrome portraits of besuited gentlemen, wooden floors so clean you could eat off them, and quilted columns that cry out to be embraced. The split-level space has something of a classroom feel – all wooden tables and chairs, battered books and low-hung filament bulbs. It’s rather like dining in a library, only a noisy one populated by beautiful creatures that don’t look like they do much reading.
A polished playground for the super rich and almost famous, as the name implies, Asia de Cuba’s fusion food takes inspiration from Havana’s Chino-Latino cafés. Having been ushered to our seats, I notice that Joanna, our Portuguese waitress, has a lotus flower tattooed to each wrist. “They symbolise having no attachments – to people, possessions, experiences even. I got them done when I moved to England,” she explains, recommending that my dining companions and I share dishes in order to sample the full range flavours on offer.
In a nod to London Fashion Week, our meal begins with a quartet of “Front Row” cocktails designed specifically for health conscious fashionistas. Bypassing the Runway Diva and Green Tea-nee, a J.D. Salinger fan, the pineapple-soaked Catch Her in the Rye catches my eye and whets my appetite. Joanna suggests we order two to three starters and two mains. I’m no mathematician, but between four greedy gourmands those sums don’t add up, so we go against the grain, ordering four starters and three mains.
The ensuing crispy squid salad sends me back down the rabbit hole. In a moment of panic, I have to check the comparative size of my fellow diners to make sure I haven’t shrunk, so colossal and seemingly unscalable is this squid mountain flecked with purple and green leaves like a Pollock painting. Wonderfully textured and surprisingly fresh, it’s like venturing into an edible garden dotted with succulent squid, squidgy banana and crunchy cashews. Served with a piquant chilli and ponzu sauce, our crab croquettes are snappingly fresh with a pleasingly moist interior protected by a crunchy suit of armor.
Meanwhile, the pork dumplings are soft, gelatinous and comforting, embryonic even, like womb food, while the spicy beef dumplings are unapologetically hot and indecently pink inside. Continuing with the spicy theme, razor-thin slithers of Thai beef carpaccio are hot as Hades, dissolving on the tongue like a communion host. Mercifully, cooling comes in the form of lemon-flecked salad leaves, avocado chunks and coconut shavings. Atop the beef mountain lies a solitary crispy wonton, which is fittingly bequeathed to me. Sharing a table with three men, I feel like a wonton mistress.
I play it safe with the wine match, opting for the reliable Laurenz V Friendly Gruner Veltliner 2010, which doesn’t disappoint. Crisp and clean, with notes of crunchy green apple and mouthwatering lime, it cuts through the fatty notes and subdues the spice. The main event is memorable. We audaciously order the Lobster Pad Thai, which, at £72, is unquestionably the most expensive main I’ve ever encountered on a menu. We’re so nervous about requesting it, that the bravest of the group coughs the order out then abruptly looks away, while Joanna scribbles down the hallowed words and we all bow our heads in a mixture of reverence and embarrassment. Curiously, the most expensive of dishes is marinated in the most inelegant of spirits: Malibu, associated more with impromptu house parties than fine dining. Despite my misgivings about the dodgy Malibu marinade, the dish is a triumph. Rich with creamy coconut, it’s decadent in the extreme – something you’d imagine Gordon Gekko ordering to try to impress Bud Fox. The flamboyance and sheer arrogance of the dish is very ‘80s, and glaringly anachronistic. I wonder how many orders they get?
Stealing the limelight somewhat from the other dishes, we also enjoy a more modest construction of achingly tender honey rum glazed pot roast of pork shredded into melt-in-the-mouth morsels, and textbook miso-cured Alaskan black cod. Delicate and delicious, it falls off the fork in swan white slithers, its silky texture sweetened by the miso marinade. We also sneak in a pair of cheeky sides – beautifully buttery lobster mash and plantain fried rice, which I could have happily scoffed by itself. Standing up against the rich and creamy lobster is the Grenache-based Domaine de Font-Sane Gigondas 2009, recommended by Joanna. A serious wine with notes of black cherry, liquorice and spice, its velvety, voluptuous body grips in all the right places.
Dessert is a dramatic affair. The carrot cake is obese and slathered with a crest of what looks like shaving foam, while the Cuban Opera imitates an obelisk and encompasses layers of chocolate cake, butter cream and coffee mousse. Served erect with a chocolate musical note resting on a ball of ice cream amid urgent swirls of caramel sauce, I manage a mere mouthful. Defeated, I find space for the restaurant’s signature Mexican donuts, served with a deliciously sweet dulce de leche dipping sauce. Sprinkled with icing sugar, their fluffy centres ooze caramel and prove an ideal match for our final wine, a toffee-filled Taylor’s 10-year-old Tawny Port. Asia de Cuba is not a cheap eat, but if you don’t mind giving your credit card an extreme workout, you’ll be richly rewarded in the flavour stakes. Just don’t go for lunch – lunch is for wimps.
Asia de Cuba at the St Martins Lane Hotel, 45 St Martins Lane, London, WC2N 4HX; Tel: +44 (0)20 7300 5588