Mingle, 544 Delaware Ave., Albany, 915-1468, minglealbany.com. Serving lunch 11:30-4 Mon-Fri, dinner 4-9 Mon-Thu, 4-10 Fri, 5-10 Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $11 (small plate of meatloaf) to $27 (Tuna Un-Hui)
Ambiance: informal and friendly
Let’s talk about service. It remains the most-neglected aspect of area restaurants, too many of which still believe that you can drop a single, undertrained individual in the midst of a half-dozen tables and expect things to go well. And we’re such sheep that we accept poor service as the way things are and endure our punishment.
This is not what happens at Mingle. It’s a new/old Delaware Avenue eatery, bringing chef Un-Hui Filomeno back to the fore. My wife and I dined there on a recent Friday, a busy night where our reserved table nevertheless awaited, and where we felt not a moment of neglect. Making it the more remarkable was that Heather, our server (who has a chirrupy Rosanna Arquette-like charm about her), had been on the job for a mere two weeks. Yet she had adapted much elsewhere experience into the knowledgeable, reassuring persona she presented. While she took our orders and checked in frequently, she wasn’t necessarily the person serving or clearing the table. And the person who cleared wasn’t the person who reset silverware. Or refilled the wine glass.
Credit goes to floor manager and co-owner Julie Royston, who trained the staff in a system she knew would be successful from past years in the business, and which was all the more impressive for taking place in a dining room filled to its limit, the servers moving swiftly, but never hurriedly, where needed. After a while, I saw them as an army of life-giving leukocytes, but at that point I had not only wine but also a generous amount of spicy kimchi jigae in me.
That’s the work of Filomeno, also a co-owner. (Her son, José, who divides time between floor and kitchen, is the third in the partnership.) In one of the odder career pinballs, this brings all three back to a site that used to be called Avenue A, after it moved from Albany’s actual Avenue A about five years ago, putting Filomeno in a too-large partnership array. But it gave her the opportunity to showcase dishes unique to her cooking, and many of them have returned, like chap chae ($21/$12), a Korean-inspired dish in which sweet-potato noodles are tossed with sliced beef or chicken, shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, carrots and spinach.
Although Korean dishes abound, Filomeno’s cooking covers a lot more geography. Jambalaya ($19/$10) and chicken and chorizo Creole ($20/$11) celebrate Louisiana. Cioppino ($24), a stew of tuna, calamari, shrimp, clams and mussels, comes from San Francisco’s Italianesque North Beach, and paella ($24/$13), which puts many of the cioppino elements over rice with chorizo, originated in eastern Spain. But when people rhapsodize over Filomeno’s creations, they mention two things first: five-cheese lobster mac ($26), an extraordinarily rich casserole of lobster meat and bow-tie pasta baked with cheddar, Swiss, ricotta, mozzarella and fontina; and tuna Un-Hui ($27), a virtuoso array of sesame-encrusted ahi tuna and sesame rice rolls. Much as I wished to revisit them, I felt compelled to try something else. I figured I’d still do well. I was correct.
The appetizer list also returns some old friends, among them Korean shrimp and vegetable pancakes ($11). It’s a pair of large, gluten-free flapjacks with morsels of shrimp, carrots, zucchini and chives, playing with your flavor expectations as you wrench off hunks of the confection and dab them with the ginger-honey-soy dipping sauce. Other starters include roasted jerk wings ($11/$6), calamari fra diablo ($16), eggplant caponata ($10/$6) and Korean tacos—an order of two for $9, the filling of marinated beef or chicken (I was wife-guided to the latter) with a hint of spicy rice-and-red chili seasoning gochujiang and a complement of apple-radish kimchi, with lettuce and a yogurt sauce on a soft corn tortilla. An unusual confluence of elements, but this is Filomeno’s trademark style and the lesson you learn is that the more outrageous-seeming the combo, the quicker you should order it.
The soup and salad list includes vegan chili, Portuguese caldo verde (each $4.50/$6.50), Caesar salad ($10/$5.50), salmon with field greens ($16) and bulgokee salad ($16), which adds broiled beef or chicken to a mix of napa cabbage, sprouts and carrots. Bulgokee is also a main dish ($23), the meat marinated in sesame and soy and served with lettuce for your wrapping pleasure. Other entrées include filet au poivre ($27), prosciutto-topped chicken Valdostana ($21), pan-seared diver scallops ($25) and marinated lamb topped with shiitake mushrooms ($24).
Although it would be easy to tax her with a lack of adventurousness, Susan chose the meatloaf ($19/$11) knowing that it would be something different. It was. It’s a mix of beef, pork and veal, and the loaf itself is impressively creamy even before it’s hit with its mushroom gravy topping. Almost stealing the show was the mashed potato preparation that drew sweetness from a special type of Korean spud.
My entrée of kimchi jigae ($18) is a stew in which kimchi and tofu and onion is simmered with rich pork belly slices, served in a clay pot, redolent of gochujiang. The seemingly muted canvas of flavors continues to develop long after your first tastes, growing in heat and complexity in a delightfully surprising way.
Among the other Korean specialties are bibimbap ($19), a clay pot of spinach, zucchini, sprouts, Korean radish and more; dukbokki ($17), a compote of rice-cake sticks and vegetables and ojingo bokkum with tofu ($18), a calamari stir-fry. Although much of it already is menu-featured, separate vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menus are available. The sense of care that you feel on the floor obviously extends back to the kitchen.
We finished with a slice of sweet, tart key lime pie—made in house, of course—and enjoyed the winding-down of the place as the dining room emptied. It gets noisy in there, and I miss the acoustic baffles Avenue A had hanging, but the noise certainly is a testament to success.