Normally I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. Every year people always say the same things: lose weight, learn the clarinet, or take up something like Zumba. By the time you get to January 15 you’ve thrown the scales out of the window, the clarinet is on eBay, and you’ve lost your Zumba deposit because you didn’t want to miss Celebrity Big Brother.
For the first time in my life, this year I decided to go against the grain; I promised myself that in 2015 I would start being more adventurous with food. I am a picky eater. I decide whether I like something or not based solely on whether I can pronounce it. I don’t mind if it once had a face, but not fins, and certainly not tentacles. Seafood has, if you’ll pardon the pun, never really floated my boat. I’m a steak and potatoes man, with a rub of the garlic.
So in keeping with my new-found whim to explore cuisine like never before, I accepted an invitation to dine at one of the newest restaurants in Abu Dhabi: Asia de Cuba, at the St. Regis’ Nation Riviera Beach Club on the Corniche. Asia de Cuba has restaurants in New York, London, and Abu Dhabi. They’ll be opening one in Dubai’s DIFC in the very near future.
Whenever I see the name “Asia” in a restaurant’s moniker it invariably means seafood and noodles — it sounded promising as far as the “new me” was concerned, but Cuban food? Forgive my ignorance, I hadn’t the faintest clue what Cuban cuisine could possibly be. And how on Earth would the fusion between the two unfold?
The restaurant’s head chef, Luis Pous, explained that the menu is all Latin Cuban, with only its inspiration coming from Asian dishes. He has put his stamp on popular dishes, as well as creating several original ideas of his own.
To really give me a taste of what Asia de Cuba has to offer, he took me through the menu, serving a selection of dishes from each section. Plate after plate arrived, each bearing different treats from the obviously talented kitchen staff.
There were well over 20 — so allow me to recommend the ones that stood out:
The first to arrive was a scallop ceviche. In case you don’t know and to spare your blushes, “ceviche” is fresh raw fish cooked in citrus juices (of course I knew that). In keeping with my New Year’s resolution and with an open mind, I tucked in and found myself in the unusual position of being pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste anything like my ill-informed imagination had led me to believe. It was melt-in-your-mouth stuff, and the citrus juices in which it sat gave it a welcome, subtle tang. I’d urge any fellow seafood-o-phobe to give it a try if you’re looking to gently bed yourself into a strange new fishy world.
The connection between the Orient and Havana became more obvious when a plate of what looked like Cornish pasties arrived. They were, in fact, black bean and plantain empanadas. Inspired by prawn toast, they came hot in a flaky pastry with a rich and textured black bean filling. With them came the intriguingly named “Icy Hot Shrimp” salad. Small shrimps come under a layer of sesame, watermelon and napa cabbage salad. The portion size is perfect and it makes for a delicious starter, or even a summery light lunch.
We all know churros to be a Latin sweet, normally oozing with caramel or chocolate, but chef Luis has thrown the doctrine out of the window and given them his own savoury twist. Shaped like conventional churros, the crispy edges give them a good crunch; the inside remains soft and easy to manage. Great for a starter, but they’d also make an excellent bar bite that you could enjoy while sipping a cold one out on the terrace.
Another voyage into the unknown was the arrival of the spicy lobster sofrito. Cut pieces of lobster are served with udon noodles, Thai chili and something called gai choy. It’s made all the more personal by chef Luis’ signature sofrito sauce — the exact ingredients were not divulged, but be assured it was delicious.
The best, however, was saved until last: the Wagyu strip steak. Cooked rare, as is my preference, it was as juicy as you could imagine and so soft that those with missing teeth won’t find themselves unflatteringly struggling. It comes with crispy chipotle soy potatoes and palm heart salad. Fair enough, at Dh270, the price will make your eyes pop out of their sockets, but once you’ve squished them back in and readjusted your focus, you’ll come to realise that it’s worth every dirham, especially if you’re a steak lover like me. I honestly couldn’t recommend this dish enough.
If you’d have told me that I was having sweet potatoes for dessert earlier in the evening, I would have got up and left. Potatoes for dessert? Not on my watch. However, as was the theme, my ignorance was once again to be curtailed.
Served with a hot caramel-like spiced cana syrup, the sweet potato bunelos resemble a donut. If there was a sweet potato in there then I couldn’t find it. It was simple, sweet and devilishly moreish. So much so, that I found myself scanning the tables around me looking for unwanted remnants… with no success.
Try as I may, it’s difficult to find fault with Asia de Cuba. It’s a complete package that has exploited one of the best — and surprisingly underused — signature locations in the capital. The outdoor bar area is a top-class night-spot all by itself and being on the beach gives it a very exclusive vibe. Latin music plays at a humane volume and the restaurant is well appointed with leather and Art Deco design, all under the warm glow of the Abu Dhabi skyline.
Main courses and desserts are around Dh50 level, while mains vary between Dh60 and Dh280.
Ideal for date night or those who aren’t so sure about seafood, Asia de Cuba’s Latin vibe is something new and different for the capital’s residents. You’ve, doubtlessly, failed your New Year’s resolutions already, so throw the clarinet in the bin, give the Zumba class the heave-ho and get down there and try something new. Oh and wear loose clothes. Don’t worry; you can lose weight next year.