Far East, far out, up West

You can't hear yourself speak in the Chinese-Caribbean restaurant at St Martins Lane. But then that's hardly the point
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Indy Lifestyle Online

So the fash-pack has a new hang-out, in the form of St Martins Lane, Ian Schrager's first London hotel, which beamed down this month amid the kind of media coverage normally reserved for Moon landings. The hype has been so extensive that I'm sure I don't need to fill you in on Schrager's rise from Studio 54 disco-prince to ultra-hip hotelier, or recap the CV of designer Philippe Starck, of projectile lemon-squeezer fame, or remind you that visitors included Leonardo di Caprio, Brad Pitt and Kate Moss.

So the fash-pack has a new hang-out, in the form of St Martins Lane, Ian Schrager's first London hotel, which beamed down this month amid the kind of media coverage normally reserved for Moon landings. The hype has been so extensive that I'm sure I don't need to fill you in on Schrager's rise from Studio 54 disco-prince to ultra-hip hotelier, or recap the CV of designer Philippe Starck, of projectile lemon-squeezer fame, or remind you that visitors included Leonardo di Caprio, Brad Pitt and Kate Moss.

It was all enough to leave Sharon and myself feeling rather anxious as we approached St Martins Lane last Saturday night, armed with a reservation for Asia de Cuba, the largest of the hotel's three restaurants. It takes a lot of courage just to walk through the doors of a place so fabulously fashionable, particularly if you're called Sharon and Tracey. But we sailed safely past the doormen and into the lobby, a white cube whose minimalist grandeur is subverted by various deliberately naff design flourishes - huge chess pieces and molar-shaped gold stools - like a Prada shop that's been customised by a capricious giant.

We'd arranged to meet Richard (recently returned from New York and an authority on all things Schragerian) in Asia de Cuba's bar area. This turned out to be a very bad idea. The bar contains no tables or chairs, just an elbow-height grid of aluminium platforms, each no bigger than a copy of Vogue. Having squeezed ourselves between them, we were then obliged to stand motionless, in case we knocked anyone's drink over.

Elegant waitresses swished about in floor-length Calvin Klein skirts, immune to our discomfort, until we begged to be shown to our table. The huge dining room is another principally white environment, with muted lighting coming from naked bulbs suspended low above each table. Giant pillars divide the room, lined with second-hand books, old-fashioned wirelesses and phrenology heads. "I'm stylish, but I have an inner life," this Bohemian clutter seems to claim, like a supermodel wearing tortoiseshell specs.

While we squinted to read the titles of the books (Sharon was delighted to spot Ambridge Summer), our waiter squatted beside us and gently enquired "is this your first visit to Asia de Cuba?" in the manner of a policeman trying to coax a potential suicide down from a tall building. Explaining that the dishes are designed for sharing, he advised us to order two starters and two main courses between us.The menu offers a rarefied take on the Chinese-Cuban restaurants of Miami and Havana, marrying Asian techniques and ingredients with South American and Caribbean influences. It's an exciting selection, which borders on the bizarre in the case of such offerings as yucca and oriental mushroom- crusted mahi-mahi, or Chinese five-spice foie gras served with vanilla French toast.

Dishes come up as soon as they are ready, and our first starter arrived within moments. A gorgeous-looking Thai beef salad, it starred deep red folds of silky carpaccio in a hot and sour dressing, accompanied by Asian greens, pungent with coriander. Frilly won tun crisps and rings of fresh, roasted coconut lent additional savour and crunch.

"It delivers!" breathed Richard. "Thank God for designer food," sighed Sharon. And we were off. A second starter of prawns served satay-style on wooden skewers was heartier, but equally good: each prawn glazed with coconut and tamarind and fried in something called panko breadcrumbs, with a mild, fruity curry for dipping. There was nothing particularly Cuban about either dish, but both were judiciously spiced and full of unusual little touches.

In fact the principal Cuban ingredient is the music, all blaring horns and bone-rattling percussion, making normal conversation impossible. The clientele is mainly young, comprising large groups of A-Gays and graphic designers wearing statement specs. Like us, they were all scouring the room in vain for Leo, Brad or Kate. "The crowd's a bit bridge and tunnel," sniffed Richard. "In New York, it would be full of media moguls and fashion designers. What's the point of it all without them?" We agreed, though, that it was very Manhattan to be in a restaurant where the waiters are far more beautiful than the customers.

By now, we were all a little in love with ours, and followed his recommendations for our main courses. Szechuan peppercorn-crusted tuna was seared without, raw within, each beautifully variegated slice served on an individual bed of buttery mashed potato. The dressing - citrus ponzu - sounds like a first-time exhibitor at Fashion Week, but is a combination of soy sauce, lime and lemon. Pot-roasted pork, cooked in soy and sake, was sensational, its crisp brown exterior glazed with honey, and the meat soft, spicy and rich. Portions are not so much generous as profligate. It's hard to imagine Kate Moss staying waif-like if she's going to be a regular visitor.

Only at the pudding stage did the mania for experimentation go wrong. Sharon's was fine: a slippery and subtle coconut and lemongrass pannacotta served with a compote of fruits in a zingy chilli sauce. But my Vietnamese banana bread pudding tasted horrible, like a blackened banana you might fish out of the back of the fridge, while Richard's pumpkin cheesecake had a vague undertow of wallpaper paste, only partially masked by the accompanying pumpkin and orange marmalade.

By the time we were leaving, a clubbier crowd was arriving, and the soundtrack had switched to raging house music. "Maybe we're just too old to appreciate it," ventured Sharon, her gaze returning yearningly to that copy of Ambridge Summer.

With a bill nudging £50 a head before service, it's hard to imagine Asia de Cuba becoming a regular haunt, though the food at its best is intense and occasionally inspired. In the end, it's the restaurant equivalent of the Philippe Starck lemon-squeezer: over-designed, overpriced, and you'll probably only use it once. But it's quite nice to know it's there.

Asia de Cuba, 45 St Martins Lane, 0171-300 5588. Lunch 12-2.30pm (Mon to Fri); dinner 5.30pm-12m't (Mon to Wed), 5.30pm-1am (Thur to Sat), 5.30pm-10.30pm (Sun). Limited disabled access. All major credit cards

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