In 1997, chef Luis Pous emigrated from Cuba to Miami to put his training from the National School of Culinary Arts in Havana to use in America. That same year, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow opened the original outpost of Asia de Cuba in Manhattan. It would be more than a decade later, though, that the two finally met to reinvent the brand.
“From a culinary standpoint, here’s the opportunity to do what I never really had the chance to do,” says Chodorow. “I did the first menu for Asia de Cuba, though I can’t cook — I imagined it. We had a no-name chef because I couldn’t find [a notable] one.”
That menu was based on Havana’s Chinatown neighborhood; when Chinese immigrants came to Cuba to work on the sugar and coffee plantations in the late 19th century, the cooking techniques of the two cultures melded to create a version of Nuevo Latino cuisine.
While the food was certainly part of the draw, by the time Asia de Cuba closed in 2011 (due to restructuring of Morgans Hotel Group, a partial owner), it was known more for its celebrity patronage than its plantains. Guests included Michael Jordan, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper — more than enough high-profile names to ensure regular mentions in the gossip columns.
The revamped restaurant opens tomorrow on Lafayette Street and aims to refocus attention on the food rather than next-table-rubbernecking. Chodorow sought out Pous after reading an article in the Miami Herald about talented Cuban chefs (at the time, he was working at The Dining Room of Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, in the Florida Keys), and hired him to bring some authenticity to the relaunch. “I want people to have fun, but I want them to come here because they like the food,” says Pous. “I hope people don’t come here just to look good.”
The chef has created a menu to entice even the fussiest of Social Swans: tuna tartare with avocado seviche; “Chino Latino” made with slow-roasted pig, jasmine rice, bean sprouts, egg and edamame; snapper with vegetable escabeche, yucca dumplings and bok choy in a coconut curry broth. All dishes are based in traditional Cuban fare, but have been updated to be made more modern and, of course, health-conscious. “Food culture has changed; people eat differently now,” says Chodorow. “When Luis came in, I gave him four or five things that I thought our existing customer base really related to. I said, ‘You don’t have to do it exactly the same, but if you change it, make it better.’”
For Pous, the dishes had to appeal to an American fine-dining palette while retaining the charm of Cuban street food. For example, savory churros are served in a ceramic container meant to look like a leftover condensed-milk can. And chicharróns (fried pork rinds) will be plated on simple brown paper. “They’re chicharróns, take it easy,” says Pous. “I don’t want people to take me too seriously.”
The cuisine may be playful, but the décor is decidedly not. Designed by Rafael de Cárdenas, Chodorow says of the space, “You couldn’t walk into the restaurant and know what type of restaurant you were in — it could be Italian.” Tiled floors, leather banquettes and a mirrored bar make up the rather staid interior — but like the old location, this Asia de Cuba is windowless, making it the perfect date-night spot for celebs in the know.
Asia de Cuba
415 Lafayette Street, New York
Hours: Mon-Wed 5:30 to 11 p.m. Thu-Sat 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.