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A Fantasy Fusion

May 09, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

More than two years after the Mondrian reopened under New York hotelier Ian Schrager's direction, it's no surprise that the Sky Bar is still pulling in a studiously trendy crowd. There's not another setting on the Sunset Strip more glamorous. French designer Philippe Starck exploited the panoramic view of Los Angeles, creating a magical outdoor space with seating tucked beneath trees strung with bottle-lights and oversized mattresses flung around the pool where guests loll like kids in a sandbox.

But now the hotel has a new restaurant that's quickly becoming just as much of an attraction as the Sky Bar--and it's a lot easier to get into. To replace the Italian restaurant Coco Pazzo, Schrager brought in another Manhattan import: Asia de Cuba. Originally from the Upper East Side, it's a bold takeoff on the funky Chinese-Cuban restaurants of New York, Miami and Havana. The food, though, is really a fantasy fusion of Asian and Latin cuisines, which mixes and matches techniques and ingredients from both traditions. Everything is served family style on huge platters. Fine dining is not the point. A festive time is.

In the long, narrow dining room, the stark white decor, including the black-and-white lithographs of ghostly figures--hasn't changed a whit. The crowd is a mix of couples, young and old, out for a romantic evening, and groups of friends celebrating at long tables or squeezed into the high-sided booths. The seats I like best are out in the garden, where tables at the end of the allee of ficus trees in giant terra-cotta flowerpots afford a spectacular view.

Waiters wear minimalist white uniforms that make them look vaguely like acolytes of some obscure sect. But instead of Coco Pazzo's coolly formal servers, they're more like helpful escapees from the Improv. Our waiter asks if anyone at our table has eaten here before, then delivers a rapid-fire explanation of the concept: "Well, every dish is a fusion of Cuban and Asian elements. They don't come out in any particular order. As soon as the chef does his thing, he sends it out--bang! They're rather grand, the plates, so family-style, I'd say a table of four, at most, could order three apps [appetizers] and three main courses."

Those "apps" include inventive "soup dumplings" filled with black bean soup and spring rolls with a rich and comforting oxtail stuffing. Duck "ropa vieja," a bowl of shredded duck stewed with peppers, comes with daikon sprouts and a stack of iceberg lettuce leaves to wrap everything in. A nicely dressed tuna tartare is layered between crisp fried wonton wrappers. I also like Asia de Cuba's signature calamari salad, an extravagant heap of bitter greens, fried squid, hearts of palm, sliced bananas and chayote squash, all tossed with a sesame-orange dressing. But my favorite starter may be the tamarind barbecue shrimp satay.

Ceviche arrives in a white cafe au lait bowl garnished with rabbit ears of fried plantain chips. More like a chilled tomato soup with bay scallops, shrimp and shelled mussels and cock-

les bobbing about, it could use a bracing dose of lime juice and cilantro. Thai beef salad is not what you'd expect either. It's a tall, frilly mound of greens with roasted fresh coconut slices, fried wonton skins and transparent slices of carpaccio-style beef in an emulsified dressing that cries out for a blast of chile.

When the flavors are focused and vibrant, Asia de Cuba's melding of Latin and Cuban is fresh and appealing. None of the cooking is heavy, and none of the dishes taste even remotely alike. Among the more interesting main courses, I love the palomillo of lamb (pounded thin, our waiter mimes, with enough energy to flatten a prime rib), pan-seared and smeared with a mix of green chile and garlic that gives the mild meat real bite. And I can always be persuaded to order the hacked lime and garlic chicken, cooked on the bone and as moist a bird as you're ever going to get. A huge portion of sliced duck breast, cooked more than medium rare, is decent, too, and comes with fat spring rolls of shredded duck.

The chefs do a good job with fish, too. Pan-seared salmon comes crisped on the surface, still moist beneath. Yucca-crusted mahi-mahi in a mellow red wine and miso sauce is plated with deliciously smoky fire-roasted hearts of palm. And there's a crispy, wok-fried whole Hunan fish stuffed with a vinegary crab escabeche.

Desserts are over-the-top extravaganzas of sweetness and definitely meant to be shared. How else could you get through that skyscraper of coconut and buttercream cake drizzled with chocolate sauce? Request spoons for the whole table if you try the "Bay of Pigs," a vertical banana split that is a veritable mountain of ice cream with enough whipped cream to feed an Olympic ski team. Either of these dishes should just about do you in--unless some party animal decides to explore the long list of sipping rums or, headaches be damned, the elaborate tropical cocktails.

It's fun to arrive a few minutes early for a meal at Asia de Cuba just to sit in the Mondrian lobby on the eccentric furniture that Starck designed for the place. There you can watch the all-in-black crowd or eavesdrop on conversations at the communal table flickering with candles. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.


Asia de Cuba

CUISINE: Asian-Cuban fusion. AMBIENCE: Philippe Starck all-white interior with view of the city (the best spot is the garden outside). BEST DISHES: calamari salad, oxtail spring rolls, Cuban black bean "soup dumplings," shrimp satay, hacked lime and garlic chicken, palomillo of lamb, crispy fish. WINE PICKS: 1997 Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling, California; 1996 Ici-la Bas Pinot Noir, Oregon. FACTS: Mondrian, 8440 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-6000. Dinner nightly. Appetizers, $13 to $19; main courses, $20 to $30. Corkage $25. Validated valet parking.

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