Ever tried to book a table online, only to find there's no availability at any time a regular human being would want to eat? Plenty of tables at 6.15 or after 10pm, but nothing during prime time? A restaurateur friend once told me that's because these sites act as a sort of bucket shop, selling off the unpopular shifts: you should always phone if you want to eat at a normal time.
But what happens if you DON'T want to eat at a normal time? If you actually need to find somewhere to eat in the wee small hours? Suddenly the options dry up. I'm calling it MacLeod's Law: generally, any restaurant that serves dinner after midnight is not a restaurant you'd want to eat dinner in. Hotels, of course, serve food round the clock. And fortuitously, St Martin's Lane, the Philippe Starck-designed hotel in Covent Garden which at the turn of the last century was the most ragingly fashionable hang-out in town, has just reopened after a refurb. So, like Rip Van Winkle on Red Bull, I'm heading up West, to drink cocktails in a crepuscular bar at a time I'd usually be tucked up in bed.
The design of St Martin's Lane, which launched in 1999 amid the kind of media coverage normally reserved for moon landings, has aged remarkably well. The lobby, with its weird gold-molar stools, still looks unsettling, like the abandoned set of some whimsical high-fashion shoot. Apart from the addition of a new carpet, it hasn't changed much, though the hotel's Light Bar has now been blacked out and renamed Blind Spot.
Asia de Cuba, the restaurant which introduced London to Chinese/Cuban fusion food , has also defiantly stuck with its unlikely theme, reanimated by a new "executive concept chef", Cuban-born Luis Pous, also responsible for branches in Dubai and New York. When I reviewed Asia de Cuba (fairly warmly) in 1999, I called it the restaurant equivalent of Philippe Starck's lemon-squeezer: overdesigned, overpriced, but nice to know it's there, even if you only use it once.
As it turned out, I used it twice, returning in a group with Renee Zellweger when she was trying to find the character of Bridget Jones and wanted a typical night on the town. Now THAT'S what I call the 90s!
Now we're back at SML to party like it's 1999. It's midnight, but the restaurant is buzzing like a Chino-Latino cafe in downtown Havana, only with more international business travellers. Asia de Cuba's Starck-designed interior hasn't been destroyed. Not entirely. Those iconic pillars lined with books and old TVs are still there, but the purity of the scheme has been lost to a carbon-dateable-to-2015 colour-scheme of oxblood, teal and grey, buttonback leather upholstery and mismatched chairs. Once it looked like nothing you'd ever seen before. Now it looks like everything you've seen before.
The menu is another story. It was unusual in 1999, and it's still challenging, ricocheting between Cuba, China and Japan, via ceviches, sections from the wok and plancha, and sharing dishes, including an £85 Cuban slow-roasted pork dish. "Spicy Thai coconut curry lobster with udon noodles, gai choy, sofrito and Thai chilli"? I'm good, thanks.
But with guidance from our effervescent Cuban waitress, we end up with some rather thrilling dishes. "Fire and ice" shrimp in a watermelon and cucumber salad rustling with shivers of shredded wonton is an explosive riff on chill and chilli-heat. Currants add a startling sweet note to a tuna tartare popping with green olives and almonds and loaded on to taco-like wonton shells. Chicharrones – crisp parcels of deep-fried chicken with sweet and fiery dipping sauces – is fashion-plate street food. Ditto shrimp churros – a huge, filthy hit of salt, seafood and starch served in a ceramic facsimile of a tin can, to be dipped into coconut curry.
Main courses flag a little (I'm pretty sure it wasn't just us). A funked-up fried rice – "Chino Latino" – bursts with roast suckling pig, bean sprouts and edamame, finished with a flourish of pork crackling. If we'd left it there, it would have been a great meal. But a glazed black cod dish was nasty – either the fish was a little "over", or something had gone badly wrong. And yucca fries, starchy and bland, were an acquired taste I won't be bothering to acquire.
Desserts, including mini-donuts to dip into caramel or chilli-chocolate sauce, are good enough to linger over, even though, at nudging 1.30, the staff are now creeping around with bulging bin bags. We've done it! We've pushed back the hands of time to eat at the dusty end of online availability. But we've also time-travelled, back to an age of hotel dining, fusion food and big bills. It was good to go back, but I'm not sure whether I'd do it again. Mind you, I said that last time.
St Martin's Lane Hotel 45 St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (020 7300 5588). Around £50 a head before wine and serviceReuse content