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Trader Vic's and Asia de Cuba

Destination Restaurants with Eclectic Menus & Expensive Tastes

Sometimes you want a fantasy setting with exotic cuisine from your dining experience, and San Francisco has more than a few destinations sporting fusion menus, over-the-top interiors, and of course, high price tags. Two of these are Asia de Cuba in the Clift Hotel, and Trader Vic's, revived as of 2005 in the old home of Stars restaurant near City Hall.

Mid-2005, Asia de Cuba hired a new chef, David Yeo of Robuchon (Paris) and Louis XV (Monaco), so we went to see if the menu was much different from what we'd experienced on previous visits. Both Asia de Cuba and Trader Vic's are part of corporate luxury chains that typically operate out of hotels (the freestanding San Francisco model is one of few anomalies within the Trader Vic's restaurant group). Menus at both restaurants are fairly extensive and can feel a little scatterbrained geographically. Prices are very high, with lamb and beef entrees hovering between $35 and $40 each. Cocktails will set you back, at $8 to $11 for crazy rum drinks at Trader Vic's and $12 for high-octane "creative" drinks at Asia de Cuba. Is this sort of outlay worth it?

Asia de Cuba
On the menu at Asia de Cuba, not much is made of the fact that your $34 miso-cured Alaskan butterfish is served as two entire adult portions on one fairly attractive platter. In our world this is awesome. It's a deal. It's fun. But I do wish the waiter had told us that we'd be getting two gigantic pieces of fish. Granted, the fish was absolutely amazing, and our server did mention that dishes are served "family style", but still, it was odd. Why have a side dish of lobster-boniato mash (boniato is a white sweet potato) for $14.50 that also feeds a family of four? Not that we're complaining, since the dish is now, as it was a few years ago, one of the finer sides ever conceived. It's just that this type of menu makes it tricky to dine as a party of two.

Groups on expense accounts will find that, even though the crab croquetas ($25) are bready and mushy, the menu is, for the most part, better than average. See the $20 Thai beef salad, which is a delightful mix of beef carpaccio, avocado, shredded coconut, and spicy watercress, which of course feeds two as though it were an entree. The atmosphere is haute city glam, with the original high, wooden ceilings of the historic Redwood Room lending charm to the otherwise dot-commy bar scene. We like the high-backed, ostrich booths, and service is of the young, savvy sort. We did not notice a discernable difference between Asia de Cuba's normal, signature menu and the work of Chef David Yeo.

Trader Vic's
At Trader Vic's, the menu is all over the place. It's as though they've jammed five restaurants into one: California bistro, Chinese, Indian, Continental, and Pan-Asian. Nevertheless, some of it works. While we absolutely hated a creamy scallop tartare ($16) and felt that the artichoke bottom with creamed spinach ($7, side dish) reeked of freezer burn, we were impressed by an entrée of pan-seared scallops ($26) served with pureed root vegetables, Madeira sauce, and braised endive. Our server was very nice, but she couldn't answer any of our foodie questions about the menu. The manager, however, is a genteel fellow who did his best to steer us toward the finer dishes on offer. His recommendation of a wood-fired, Indonesian rack of lamb ($35 for a single portion) with curry rice noodles and peanut sauce was right on.

The most memorable part of our visit was the Mai Tai-fueled conversation we enjoyed after dinner with our table neighbors, who turned out to be investors in the restaurant. These elder society nobs regaled us with tales of the old Trader Vic's, which, mid-twentieth century, was the "it" place for celebration dinners. When the topic turned to their Bohemian Club campouts with George H. W. Bush, it became clear that alcohol, indeed, is the great uniter. That said, we would recommend Trader Vic's for drinks and pu-pus anytime (note the free happy hour buffet 4-6pm, M-F), since the interior feels so grand and tropical. It's less campy than we had expected, although don't be surprised if your waiter serves your rummy, $9 Menehune juice with not only a little umbrella, but also a slightly offensive plastic figurine of a Pacific Islander in native dress. Happy Graduation!

Asia de Cuba
Asian/Nuevo Latino Fusion
Theater District

Trader Vic's
Asian Fusion/Continental
Civic Center