Oysters and a Guest List

A great friend of mine was over from New York this week. We’d arranged to go for dinner so, naturally, so I was left with the challenge of booking dinner for us. Probably quite understandably for someone who lives in New York, he’s not massively into eating portions that could feed a small city so I wanted to find somewhere that was light, but served excellent food. An obvious choice was seafood, but it may come as no surprise at all that I’ve not been near oysters since the dreaded Oystergate in New York last month. So I guess I surprised even myself when I booked us a table at that greatest of London seafood institutions, J Sheekey (http://www.j-sheekey.co.uk).

In the oyster bar.

We’d had pre-dinner drinks and went to the restaurant for our reservation. It was such an immediate meeting of minds (he thought it was too quiet, I saw oysters and immediately felt queasy) that within 30 seconds we were bidding the doorman our excuses and we were back on the street. Where to eat in the heart of London’s tourist mecca ? Aberdeen Steak House ? The Greasy Grill ? El Tacky Taco ? A stroke of genius from my guest and moments later we found ourselves in the excellent, but confusingly named, Asia de Cuba in St Martin’s Hotel (http://www.stmartinslane.com).

Asia de Cuba shouldn’t be in a hotel. In the menu construction, the ambience and the clientele, everything tells you it ought to be in Mayfair somewhere. Perhaps it’s the Philip Starck influence but everything about Asia – and indeed the hotel itself – just exudes stylish funkiness. The restaurant decor is avant garde to say the least but it was nice to see that it remains as popular as ever.

Asia’s menu is an eclectic, Nobu-like Japanese-cum-Fusion affair with some strange ingredients and combination flavours. I was immediate left with the feeling that it was trying to hard to be, well, something but not entirely sure what. But our server was both attentive and knowledgeable and suggested many items on the menu that she must clearly have tasted. Nice touch. The food was expensive but absolutely exceptional. The Thai beef salad had some of the best beef carpaccio I’ve tasted in a long time while our other starter of Ropa Vieja of Duck (duck confit) was beautiful and, in keeping with my strange ingredients comment above, came with shredded calabaza (a variety of squash so I found out later). Our shared main course of black cod was even better than that I’d had in Zuma which is really saying something. It was really nice that you just didn’t feel like you were in a hotel restaurant though which I guess is a combination of the decor and clientele.

St Martin’s Hotel is a strange old place though, and we had an after-dinner drink in the guest list-only LIght Bar (even though we weren’t on the guest list). Think about it. A bar, in a hotel, where you have to book. Pretentious ? Moi ? And given it was half empty, either the door staff were being too choosy, or there was actually no need for door staff. I’ll let you guess which. But given all that, I do like the fact that even in a desert of the world’s worst restaurants, you can find an oasis such as Asia to eat fabulous of, even if it does have an identity crisis.

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