Two of the area’s most creative chefs have combined their talents to produce an unlikely restaurant. It’s in an unlikely spot, boasts an unlikely array of entrées, and is unusually inexpensive. Joseph Soliman opened the Hidden Café in 2002, evolving, over time, a small Mediterranean menu into a more ambitiously Continental array maintained by that restaurant’s current owner. And Un-Hui Filomeno created a menu at Avenue A that showcased Korean fare in a fusion-minded setting.
Although a synthesis of the two would seem unlikely, had you described it as a possibility, they’ve put something together in this intimate, friendly space that plays with 15 to 20 entrées a night, enhancing the favorites with unusual twists (shiitake lamb, for example [$20], in which the roasted, marinated meat is topped with a shiraz and shallot sauce with mushrooms), presenting straightforward classics—chicken Valdostana ($18), with prosciutto and fontina—and delving into Filomeno’s realm with items like beef bulgokee ($19), about which there’s more below.
The restaurant opened quietly in October. Soliman learned of the available space (it was Aromi d’Italia for several years) and, while putting together a plan to build on his Hidden Café approach, learned that Filomeno was available and could add a unique culinary personality. “I just want to serve good food,” he says. “Food that people are familiar with. She has her following, and I know I have my own.”
His approach was evident in one of the evening’s specials when my family and I visited recently. Grilled lamb top round ($19) takes a neglected cut of my favorite meat and turns it into an ovine London broil, its good flavor complemented by a sweet glaze of balsamic vinegar and served atop roasted scallions and tomato slices. The accompanying couscous was similarly sweet thanks to the currants and golden raisins within.
Another special, yaki man do, is an $8 appetizer of homemade (of course) dumplings filled with ground chicken and napa cabbage, the flavors gentle but still pungent, enhance-able, if you think it necessary, with a sauce of soy and ginger.
And that’s where we were on Filomino’s turf, enjoying the subtle flavors and more intricate texture of an item that’s been blanded-down by mass production. Among the other Avenue A favorites that have migrated here are chap chae ($19), a sauté of beef tenderloin strips and sweet potato noodles, mushrooms and carrots, dressed with scallions and sesame seeds; five-cheese lobster mac and cheese ($23, or swap chicken for lobster for $19), which was my all-time favorite at the other restaurant but that I didn’t order this time only because there was tuna Un-Hui ($24) to revisit as well.
There was a time when I felt tuna-ed out. I’d supplanted what seemed a constant stream of salmon with what I believed was a more ecologically sound alternative, but even as I learned the complicated details of making such a choice, I felt that I’d enjoyed a sufficiency. As Un-Hui’s preparation reminded me, there’s room for more. The fish is rolled in sesame seeds. As with a good New York bagel, little else shows through. The outside of the meat is seared; the inside is sushily pink. The flavor: Ah, there’s a lot going on upon the tuna’s surface, more than soy and sesame, although both are prominent. It must be the way that fish hits the skillet. It’s served upon small pillars of sesame rice and a thumb of wasabi squats alongside an intimate array of sautéed vegetable strips.
I asked Filomeno about her cooking style. “I want people to be happy,” she said. “I like to see them smile.”
Among the nine appetizers are Soliman’s trademark hummus ($7), Korean shrimp and vegetable pancakes ($9) and veggie tempura ($7). I sampled one that’s new to me: Mediterranean feta salad ($7), which puts a scoop of a tomato-olive-scallion mix livened with a generous helping of crumbled feta alongside wedges of warm pita. It’s similar to the tapenade ($7), which expands the classic olives-capers-anchovies compote into a more dense creation with eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes and a good presence of garlic—again, served with warm pita.
Caldo verde ($4) is a standout among the soup offerings, by virtue of doing little more than following a traditional recipe that combines puréed potatoes with chopped kale and spicy Portuguese chorizo. It’s not too thick, thus a good appetizer consistency, and the flavor blend is mouth-filling. Chorizo also figured into a stuffed pork chop entrée ($20), a special of the day, with lots of tender meat around what’s otherwise a familiar mix of bread and celery. The sausage not only takes it to a more fascinating place but also well complements the pork. Mashed Korean sweet potatoes and a mixed-vegetable julienne complete the plate.
The abovementioned beef bulgokee starts with tenderloin strips, hit with soy and sesame oil, along with garlic, scallions and sesame seeds. It’s presented alongside a plate of lettuce leaves in which you wrap small sandwiches of the beef mixture, topping it with house-made gochujang, a hot, sweet chili paste. And there was a serving of excellent kimchi, the traditional Korean side-dish of fermented vegetables, with cabbage a dominant item.
The restaurant mixes booths and tables, with counter space in front and a large display of gelato inherited from its previous life. It has been redecorated for a more dignified appearance, but it remains roomy and comfortable. The staff is young and enthusiastic, and we always felt well-looked-after during the meal. Even if this place weren’t so economical it would be a bargain, and I suspect we’ll soon be fighting the regulars to find seats.