When I moved to the Village in the ’70s, Asia de Cuba was a joint on Eighth Avenue where impecunious artsy types hunkered down at a luncheonette counter to slurp up comidas chinas y criollas that were tasty lessons in food history. Combining soy and sofrito, the dishes prefigured the fusion feeding frenzies of the ’90s. Flash – forward 25 years and the name lives again—this time attached to a slick, sleek establishment that comes complete with bouncers and velvet ropes. Anyone who’s dined at the Royalton’s 44 or the Blue Door Miami’s Delano will recognize the Starck decor, complete with standard flowing curtains and angular furniture, and might easily dismiss the spot as just another link in the chain of model-mecca hotel eateries.
Squired by a chef friend who toiled elsewhere for the same owner and accompanied by a movie star’s mom, I had no problem with the ropes on my first visit, just before the end of service one evening. I ignored the sense of déjà vécu as I parted the draperies and enjoyed the buzz of a New York wannabe crowd anticipating a star sighting. Ushered to the balcony and enshrined in a prime dining alcove, I had little time to reflect on the restaurant’s Seventh Avenue predecessor as we hurried our order. Served family style like all dishes to encourage sharing, the calamari salad ($14.75) was a citrus – and – sesame – dressed mound of frisée and radicchio shot through with bits of chayote, palm heart, banana, and cashew and topped with crisply chewy squid rounds. It set us up for the evening, but as a poster plate for the mix madness of the ’90s, not the creole comfort food of my memories. The pan-seared duck ($29) came closer, the rich dark sapor of the meat brightened with dabs of mango and apricot marmelada, as did the chino latino spiced chicken ($23), deceptively simple poached bird with hints of five-spice powder combined with the hot, sweet, and sour flavors of the chile-flecked, kimchee-inspired slaw. There was no need for dessert. I just sucked up another caipirinha ($9) and remembered the good old days, when I had a waist.
I returned on Labor Day weekend with some willowy cousins and no reservations. They were cute enough to get us a table, but not famous, so we three were squeezed around a tight two-top a tad too close to the lengthy communal table that dominates the room. Our waiter struggled valiantly with the space constraints, but finally decided that we’d have to eat in courses—the serving dishes just wouldn’t all fit on our cocktail napkin of a table. After a replay of the calamari, we moved on to an order of beef satay ($17), a soyed-up version of the Thai classic with the New World addition of a lightly crunchy quinoa salad. The palomillo of marinated lamb ($28.50) proved a massive portion of rare slices served with a tropical ratatouille that had us fighting for the last piece. Though we couldn’t even finish an encore of the chicken, a caloric coconut confection satisfied one cousin’s sweet tooth. My guests enthused, loving the scene and the sabor. I took the rest of the chicken home to a bigger table, thinking that the creole food of the Atlantic rim is the world’s original fusion food—and that each generation gets the Asia de Cuba it deserves.