Cafe Reviews

Getting Cocky

Waiting for a table at Asia de Cuba on a recent Saturday night, my friends and I knew time was dragging on when we started to nurse the ice cubes left from our 15-dollar rum cocktails. Even though we'd made reservations days earlier, we found ourselves sitting at the bar, waiting for a hostess to seat us, as the restaurant gradually went from full to packed. I couldn't hear my stomach growling over the thumping salsa, but I could definitely feel it. Finally, one of my dining companions piped up to say he was buying us another round.

"Well, this is just one more sign that Scottsdale is turning into L.A.," he said with a been-there, done-that sort of amusement. A former Angeleno who used to frequent that city's hippest hangouts, he said a pre-dinner wait was pretty typical there. In these parts, though, it'll take some getting used to, even if the restaurant is at Scottsdale's brand new, white-hot Mondrian hotel.

"Really, the only thing that bothers me," he continued, "is that when I got a confirmation call for tonight, the girl told me we'd lose our reservation if we showed up more than 15 minutes late. And she said it really sternly, too."

An hour and 15 minutes after we showed up, we were finally seated.

So was Asia de Cuba, the latest outpost of restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow's über-stylish chain of eateries, actually worth the wait? Thinking back to some of dishes we had, and the vibrant scene — while forgiving newbie service at a place that just opened a month ago — I have to say yes. It was a fun night out.

For one thing, it's a chic but cheeky atmosphere. Inside the hotel lobby, it's the kind of surrealist fantasyland that René Magritte might've dreamed up if he'd hung out in the desert, with oversize steer skulls peering down from one wall, and enormous puffy clouds suspended from the high ceiling. At the far end is Asia de Cuba, down a set of stairs.

As you descend into the restaurant, the vibe morphs from chill to supercharged, with blaring Cuban rhythms, a see-and-be-seen bar area, and a buzzing dining room filled with round tables. Almost everything is stark white, from clinical waitstaff uniforms to towering sculptures of fruit as abundant as Carmen Miranda's headdress. A grid of translucent brown squares and quirky rooster photos fills a side wall, while a mural-size portrait of the same cocky bird takes up one end of the room.

At first, I didn't get the decor, but then I looked around and realized that amid the preening, well-dressed crowd, there were plenty of strutting, big-spending characters who acted like roosters themselves. Adding an exclamation point to the food and sex subtext, there's a giant white egg statue out on the patio.

Accordingly, Asia de Cuba's menu prices are huge, but so are the family-style portions. Except for astronomically priced drinks, like the mojito made with seven-year-old Flor de Caña rum ($15), everything's made for sharing. Servers suggest three appetizers and three entrees for a table of four. (They didn't factor in dessert, but they should.) That's still more than most people will be able to eat, though. On another visit, when my party didn't order quite that much, we stuffed ourselves and still had leftovers.

Calamari salad was a novel take on a ubiquitous appetizer, with more emphasis on salad than calamari. I felt a little less guilty eating fried squid when it was tossed with crisp chicory and radicchio, sesame-orange dressing, cashews, and chunks of chayote, banana, and hearts of palm. Fried black bean and chickpea dumplings, served in a gingery tomato sauce, were also a pleasant surprise, reminiscent of Indian cuisine. Less successful were the lobster shiitake gyoza, which gave no hint of Japanese mushrooms. Arranged in a pool of chorizo lobster broth, they completely lost any pan-fried crispness they might've started out with.

I can't say lemongrass-skewered chicken, coated in a spicy coconut chile sauce, was any different from what I've ordered countless times at Thai restaurants. On the other hand, the "ropa vieja" of duck was creatively presented. Instead of simply swapping duck for shredded beef, the kitchen sent out two plump duck legs, cooked confit-style, along with a platter of fixings for lettuce wraps. The good-looking young server who brought it to our table made a little show of shredding the meat off the bone, and I couldn't help but laugh, thinking about what my friend had said about L.A. Was it me, or was the waiter auditioning for something?

Some of the less interesting entrees were redeemed by unusual side dishes. Pan-seared ahi was just as you'd expect, aside from some too-salty chimichurri sauce. However, it came with a heap of potent wasabi mashed potatoes that were playfully polka-dotted with crunchy wasabi peas. Cuban spiced chicken, more sweet than spicy, wasn't at all exotic, but it was tender. Paired with Thai coconut sticky rice, the dish was a hit with everyone at the table. Yuzu-tinged black bean and edamame salad that accompanied our Alaskan butterfish didn't shine as brightly, but the fish itself — cured in a marinade of miso and mirin — was incredibly silky.

I prefer lamb in its juicier incarnations — a seared chop, a braised shank — but the garlicky palomillo of marinated lamb was a tasty variation on a Cuban steak dish. Thinly pounded, pan-seared fillets got a savory boost from a colorful stir-fry of onions, Japanese eggplant, and peppers. Meanwhile, the "Mar y Tierra" was more to my liking, with melt-in-your-mouth slices of jerk-marinated grilled rib eye, and tempura-fried shrimp. And the Hunan-style whole fish — a crispy, fried striped bass filled with a spicy, gingery mix of red pepper, onion, and crabmeat — was as delicious as it was dramatic, its open mouth and flared fins looking like the creature leapt right out of the wok and onto the platter.

By the end of the meal, I regretted gorging on a side dish of lobster-boniato mashed potatoes. They were sinfully sweet and buttery, but they took up room in my stomach that should've been saved for real desserts — in particular, the Mexican doughnuts that made my dining companions grin like greedy kids. The hot little balls of brioche, coated in cinnamon and sugar, burst with molten toffee when you bit into them. Amazing.

I didn't like the plantain cake at all — it was dry, and not all that sweet — but I'd happily eat a bowlful of the vanilla rum ice cream that came with it. "Bay of Pigs," a banana split assembled to look like a funny face, could've fed the whole table. And the creamy flan was simply outstanding, perfumed with vanilla, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves.

Figures — it was the one dish we ordered that wasn't big enough. Next time I visit Asia de Cuba, I'm ordering one all for myself, even if I have to wait an hour and 15 minutes to get my table.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig