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Teri Currie

Hummus a Little Tune
By B.A. Nilsson

The Hidden Café
Delaware Plaza, Delmar, 439-8800. Serving daily 11-10. MC, V.

Food: * * *½
Service: Determined

Ambience: Tabula rasa

Gaze through the large windows at the front of the Hidden Café and you see . . . a white wall on the other side of an alley. It’s hidden, all right, tucked into the apex of the two major wings of Delmar’s Delaware Plaza.

The Hidden Café opened less than two months ago in a space that “unassuming” hardly begins to describe. A dozen tables, a long bar, a register near the door, white walls, few decorations: It’s a place in the throes of first life, but it’s eager and the food is good (and dinner business, the owner assures me, is already taking off).

The lunch menu leads with the welcome surprise of omelettes ($4.25-$5.25), with even more welcome variations. The house omelette, for example, sports garlic and mozzarella, seasoned with cumin and cilantro; the “oinking omelette” has bacon and ham. Burgers, wraps, salads and specialty sandwiches are all priced under $7, and scaled-down versions of dinner specials also are available.

Those burgers, wraps and salads are repeated on the dinner menu, some priced slightly higher to accommodate more side-dish offerings. Among the specialty sandwiches are grilled chicken breast with pesto sauce ($8), Reuben ($7) and grilled veggies (onions, carrots, portobello mushrooms and zucchini, among other ingredients, $7).

But it was the listing of Mediterranean dishes that grabbed my attention. Spanakopita, falafel, souvlakia—the classics are here and they’re $8 apiece.

It was a largish party with which I visited, once again my wife and kid, my friend (and midwife) Vicki and her infant child, and friends Susan and Steven and their child. Had I seen a party like this arrive where I was dining five years ago, I would have muttered silent curses and fled. This is nature’s revenge.

We arranged ourselves around a pair of pushed-together tables and struggled to put together an order, which becomes exponentially more difficult with this many adults and children involved. Beverages were chosen—no liquor here yet, although a wine and beer license is in the works—and ideas were tossed around, culminating in a good sampling of the Mediterranean side of things.

Chef-owner Joseph Soliman hails from Egypt. He is almost apologetic about the fact that he spent only a couple of years in the restaurant business before this. “But I’m the one who cooks at home all the time,” he says.

He has no reason to be modest. Everything we tasted was terrific, starting with the Mediterranean Trio (this one’s only $7). I forgot to specify that I wanted it as an appetizer, so it arrived, after bit of a wait, with the entrées—two of them, in fact (another plate went to the far end of the table). With plenty of sliced, warm pita bread to accompany it, you can dig in to a lemony, fluffy version of hummus, one of the best I’ve tasted. Baba ganouj, an eggplant-based paste, had a nice hit of spiciness, and a tzatziki dip (yogurt and cucumbers are primary ingredients) gave a contrasting and welcome sourness that was very refreshing.

Steve ordered spanakopita, a mixture of chopped spinach and feta cheese, “warped in phyllo dough,” as the menu declares, sliced into easy-to-eat portions. It’s a simple dish, but profoundly buttery and thus rich: Even Steve’s hearty appetite was challenged. A Greek salad garnishes the plate, offering more feta amid an otherwise straightforward mix of lettuce and carrots and olives and such.

Vicki had alerted me to this place based on her previous happy experiences here; she had worked her way down the menu to the pasticcio, a smallish soufflé dish of penne baked in a meat sauce and topped with what’s listed as a “pashmeel” sauce, which turns out to be a béchamel: milk-based, rich and creamy when heated with roux. It’s peasant fare, relying on big flavors that were well in evidence here. A salad is served on the side.

My spouse is a falafel fan, and we enjoy it at home when I think to get the ingredients (chick peas, parsley, tahini, the right spices). How nice to find it so expertly prepared, with far more of a flavor range than I’ve ever given the dish. Leeks and dill are added to the mix, and it’s served with a tahini sauce, lettuce and slices of onion, cucumber and tomato. Although fries are the default side dish, Susan had it changed to a pasta salad.

Lily, meanwhile, decided she needed an entrée of her own, and poked at a shish kebab of chicken breast pieces with chunks of onion, green pepper, tomato and mushrooms sharing skewer space. It was straightforward, tasty and filling, served over rice, but Lily was so busy with the hummus that the kebab came home and became both breakfast and lunch the following day.

I chose a chopped Angus sirloin dish: kufta, in which the seasoned meat strips are skewered and grilled and served in a style similar to the falafel. The cilantro-rich seasoning also sported cumin, which imparted a deeper flavor than your standard-fare burger. I passed on the proffered fries in favor of rice as well.

By the time I was finishing, each kid had long since persuaded a parent to venture outdoors. Those of us who remained had the leftovers packed and joined them.

This is a small operation, so service gets slow when customers pile in; Soliman is looking forward to increasing staff size as more people discover the restaurant. At this point, while the restaurant is still somewhat hidden, it’s the best bargain in the area.

Dinner for six, with tax and tip and soft drinks, was $85.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Farm Fresh & Fabulous: Chefs Make a Local Feast is the moniker for the sixth annual fund-raising event for the Regional Farm & Food Project; it’s a terrific display of what’s achievable through the ongoing work of this organization, calling attention to the many local farmers who raise their crops and animals with sound ecological and organic techniques. Sustainable local agriculture is a boon to the area in many ways, from nutritional and flavor advantages to the vital sense of community it promotes. The fund-raiser will take place at 6 PM Monday, Sept. 23, at Saratoga’s Canfield Casino, and features more than a dozen local chefs, each of whom will team with one or more farms to create dishes with homegrown products. All of the fruit, vegetables, herbs, cheese, eggs and meat will come from the area, and New York wine and beer also will be presented. A silent auction will be held throughout the evening as well. Tickets are $55 per person ($65 after Sept. 16), and are available at Celtic Treasures (Saratoga), the Open Door Bookstore (Schenectady) and the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza (Guilderland). For more info, call 427-6537 or check out www.capital.net/~farmfood. . . . The Charleston (517 Warren St., Hudson) welcomes Bruce Lieberman as chef. Lieberman has worked in kitchens since he was 15, most recently as executive chef at Fifi’s in Toledo, Ohio. His new summer menu at the Charleston features produce from area farmers, as well as greens, tomatoes and herbs from the restaurant’s own garden. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)



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