A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Jun 18.

Kuma Inn and Edamame and Shrimp

Pork and Shumai

Sausage and Bass

Dinner -

Kuma Inn - 113 Ludlow St., 2nd Floor, Lower East Side
Edamame in Thai-chili lime oil; Drunken shrimp with sake and kalamansi; Pork Loin; Wasabe Pork Shumai, Vegetarian Summer Rolls with Thai basil, bean sprouts, carrots and chayote; Sauteed Chinese sausage in Thai chili sauce; Bass in ginger sauce; Flight of sakes (kaori, kaishu, chiyomusubi)

It seems everyone wins with small plates. Diners get to try a far wider variety of tastes, breaking out of the stodgy routine of appetizer-entrée-dessert. Restaurateurs can pad their profits as people lose track of their mounting bills. Even the atmosphere usually benefits, buoyed by the free-flowing drinks. Some of my favorite restaurants, like Tia Pol (see Dinner, Apr. 3) and Otto (see Apr. 24), subscribe to the theory of small plates and pull it off masterfully. I was hoping Kuma Inn in the Lower East Side could do as well.

Pat and I went to find out on a muggy Saturday night. Located on the second floor of a quieter stretch of Ludlow, Kuma Inn is a Filipino tapas restaurant that incorporates many pan-Asian influences. It’s softly lit but plays Depeche Mode and Spoon, simultaneously intimate and casual. It reminded me of Decibel (see Mar. 4) if Decibel were clean and chill and had tables spaced widely apart.

First things first, we started with the sake list. Pat and I chose the nice option of a flight, which offered three glasses of different chilled sakes for $15. Coming with kaori, kaishu and chiyomusubi, the flight was a welcome extension of the sampling mentality. They were all pretty good, and contrasted with each other in pleasant but subtle ways.

To accompany the alcohol, Pat ordered a serving of edamame without looking at the menu. So when we each popped open our first soybean pods, we noticed something special. Bathed in a Thai chili lime oil, these beans went from bland to suddenly exciting. I found myself sucking on the pod skins just to get a little more flavor. We were dipping relatively dry husks on top into the sauce below. It was such a simple yet inspired touch of fusion, but it foretold the level of thoughtful care and light but bold flavors to come.

Our first dishes, the shrimp and the pork loin, were both prime example of this. Nothing exotic, they were classic preparations made new by their potent sauces. King Phojanakong’s kitchen also cooked very well, producing a delicate and tender shrimp enlivened by kalamansi juice and a grilled pork with just the right texture.

Next came a plate of Chinese sausage, the wasabe shumai and the summer rolls. I continually went back to the plate of sausage, intrigued by it because I’d never had it. In another context, I would’ve almost thought it was kielbasa or a thick Russian salami, but the distinctly Eastern green chili sauce reclaimed its Asian identity. The shumai, which can be found almost anywhere, still impressed me here. It really packed a sinus-clearing punch of heat and the skins on the dumplings were noteworthily tasty. The summer rolls were the one item that wasn’t improved or heightened. They were the same clear-dough rolls you’d find anywhere, which is still pretty good.

To finish, we had bass, once again distinguished by its winningly gentle ginger sauce. The fish was again cooked expertly, easily yielding to our eager forks. We hadn’t planned to order another course, but everything else had been so good, it only stoked our appetites. And of course that was the beauty of small plates. We could keep ordering dishes to split until we were sated. We could keep getting the small, narrow glasses of sake until we were tipsy. At Kuma Inn, with so many promising choices and so many unexpectedly vibrant renditions, it’s just a wonder we stopped at the bass. 8/10


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