Asia de Cuba, the flagship restaurant at London's ultra-chic St Martin's Lane hotel, is four years old and it's got itself a new chef. Not that Owen Stewart is a stranger to the eaterie - he was one of the team that launched it back in 1999. And, as an executive chef for Asia de Cuba's US operator, China Grill Management, for the past seven years, he has been involved in building up the menus at the original Asia de Cuba at Morgan's hotel in New York and its sister restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The London Asia de Cuba didn't receive a unanimous thumbs-up from the critics when it first opened, but it has always pulled in the punters and, as you'd expect, the US-born Stewart is not messing with the format of a successful operation. So the Latino-American cuisine "with an Asian influence" has remained unchanged, and the practice of putting out menu choices that can be shared among diners is continuing.
Despite the fact that Asia de Cuba is not the only London restaurant doing this now, customers still aren't always comfortable with the family-style portions or, indeed, the tradition of sending fish out with their heads intact. For instance, the Hunan whole crispy fish (which is filleted and cleaned) stuffed with an escabèche of red, green and yellow peppers and fresh crab meat, deep-fried and served in a tomato sauce (£25.50) is often returned to the kitchen with a request for the head to be removed, despite the menu description.
The challenge of expanding Londoners' eating habits doesn't daunt the laid-back Stewart, though. "It's such an interesting time in London right now. It's like being back in New York 10 years ago," he enthuses.
Among the mains are dishes such as Cuban-spiced chicken with coconut rice in banana leaf and tamarind sauce served with avocado fruit salsa (£16.50); spiced roasted duck served with stir-fried lo mein and lychee black vinegar sauce (half £22.50, or whole £28); and a traditional bouillabaisse with a dash of hotness about it - squid, mussels, clams, shrimps and scallops with roasted tomato chilli broth (£10).
Unsurprisingly, among the desserts there is room for coconut-based puds such as the Coconut Invasion - coconut layer cake with dulce de leche ice-cream and a chocolate sauce (£8.50). But, according to Stewart, mini Mexican doughnuts (£10.50) are an addictive alternative. These are filled with caramel sauce and served with a butterscotch sauce - definitely not for anyone without a sweet tooth.
It terms of business, the 125-seat restaurant is serving between 50 and 75 covers at lunch depending on the day of the week, with this number increasing to about 375 for dinner. This goes up to about 400 covers on a Saturday night.
Asia de Cuba, 45 St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4HX. Tel: 020 7300 5588. Web:www.asiadecuba-restaurant.com
By Lisa Jenkins
Japanese togarashi pepper has a mixed peppery taste, a very spicy flavour, and I use this instead of traditional black or white pepper.
What's On the Menu
- Tuna tartare picadillo-style with Spanish olives, blackcurrants, almonds and coconut, soy-lime vinaigrette and wonton crisps, £11.50
- Calamari salad with hearts of palm, chayote, banana, cashew nuts, rocket and curly endive with sesame orange dressing, £15
- Cuban beef spring rolls with dipping sauces, black bean and cucumber salsa, £12.50
- Pan-seared palomilla of lamb brushed with mojito, with sofrito peppers, onions, Chinese eggplant, and watercress salad with orange oil, £18.50
- Pot-roasted pork cooked in soy, mirin and sake with a honey and rum glaze, £17.50
- Wagyu beef of the day, £39
- Cuban Opera - chocolate layer cake with coffee mousse, milk chocolate fudge and coffee brittle ice-cream, £8.50
- Pina y crema - vanilla cheesecake with caramelised pineapple and passion fruit syrup, £8.50
- Cuban coffee brownie with a fudge brownie ice-cream, £9.50