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Asia de Cuba

Stellar Food at an Interstellar Price Point

Hilary Swank has her press shots taken in the lobby, and Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley order cocktails in the Redwood Room. Delroy Lindo celebrates his birthday dinner in the restaurant and Bono eats poached eggs with the owner after a night in the suddenly fashionable Spanish Suite. Like the city's new-money hipster and old-money investor populace, celebs are skipping The Mark Hopkins, Postrio and Farallon to bask in the sleek, hyperbolic safari design of what once was a dusty landmark decked in irritating pinks and greens.

The Clift Hotel, recently renovated by former Studio 54 owner Ian Schrager and It designer Phillippe Starck, joins the pair's fabulous little stamp collection of fabulous little big-time high-design hotels, notably the Mondrian in L.A., St. Martin's Lane in London, and the Hudson in New York City. Asia de Cuba, operated by restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, is nothing new to the jet set (since there seems to be one around every corner in the major markets). This palatial hall of rarified swank has been set up to function as San Francisco's edgiest, most fashion-forward dining cavern.

With its sky-high prices and Chino/Latino cuisine, the restaurant is continually besieged with hooked eyebrows and disparaging remarks to the effect of, "The shellfish paella for two? No great shakes for sixty dollars." The monetary velvet rope is in full effect at Asia de Cuba. If you can't afford to pick up a new pair of $400 Robert Clergerie mules for your dinner date, then you can't afford the dinner.

Assuming that you can, since many San Franciscans have outrun the recession with their bank accounts intact, the food is actually pretty incredible. Like brilliant. Delectable. F***ing fabulous, no joke. Chef Maria Manso's Cuban upbringing and stints at New Orleans' Palace Café and Chodorow's China Grill in Miami inform her clever melange of rich, hearty Cubano comfort food and effervescent New American technique. Sure, you only get six lobster potstickers for your $24, but the meaty, vanilla bean spiced rum-sauced dandies don't fade in memory.

Same for the easily-missed side dish of lobster-boniato mash ($13), a genius mix of pulverized white sweet potato and plentiful chunks of lobster. Stack these up with a $32 roasted ostrich steak (the other red meat), perfectly cooked and paired magnificently with a gingery, shittake mushroom guiso, deep-fried mashed plantain cylinders and a reduction so rich you're likely to melt into your high-backed ostrich leather booth. An unremarkable plate of grilled shrimp in Asian pesto with wok-charred tropical fruit is made up for by a huge and stunning side dish of plantain fried rice ($9) topped with ungodly amounts of perfect guacamole. Boring California hand roll apps ($6.50) are redeemed by a well-balanced Tunapica shooter ($6), ahi tuna tartare tossed with Spanish olives, black currants, almonds and coconut with a soy-lime vinaigrette.

As one would expect from a high-end establishment like Asia de Cuba, the cocktails don't disappoint, and the glassware is elegant, solid. The signature drink menu leans heavily toward the sweet and tropical, but the Asian pear martini with Poire William, Bacardi and pleasantly mealy fresh pear offers subtle respite from the Clift Coladas and Havana Iced Teas being shuffled about the dining room alongside overpriced bottles of wine. (Check out Michael Bauer's Chron review earlier this Fall -- he's right -- the wine is priced far above the average SF profit margin.) The Caipirinhas are strong as hell, as they should be, and there's a tropical bowl drink called Jamaican Me Krazy for the Trad'r Sam's fanatic who never outgrew that multi-straw drunk lust.

Asia de Cuba will break the bank, but the food and atmosphere are worth it for the most part, and anyway, it's matchless in San Francisco for grandeur, style, and to-the-minute fashionista cred. It may be a cookie-cutter outpost of Ian Schrager's brave new world, but at least the guy's got airtight taste and a good eye for talent.