Date Night: Kuma Inn, Speakeasy Eats on the Lower East Side
It isn't as if Kuma Inn is off the grid. Since opening almost ten years ago, this Filipino fusion-Asian tapas restaurant has been reviewed in several periodicals, many laminated and available for perusal in the tiny waiting area. But first you have to find it—on the second floor of an unmarked building on Ludlow Street. You could call it a speakeasy, or a reward for persistence, or the best possible outcome of climbing up a staircase with no idea what's at the top.
Kuma Inn doesn't have windows. It's T-shaped, and golden brown, with sculptures made from bamboo on the walls. We've heard Kuma Inn described as an "auteur restaurant," and while Chef King Phojanakong wasn't in the kitchen when we were there, his idiosyncratic vision permeates the plates.
We started with the vegetarian summer rolls ($7.50), the only non-signature dish we ordered. Lesson learned: stick with the signature dishes at this place. Cold, unseasoned shreds of daikon and carrots were stuffed into a rice noodle wrapper. The peanut plum sauce added some warmth, as did the monster heater cranked on high above us. Otherwise we might still be thawing from the winter weather and cold food.
The pan-roasted ocean scallops ($13) came with little bits of bacon as well as a calamansi and sake sauce. Native to the Philippines, the citrusy calamansi brightened the sauce's buttery base, and left a slightly bitter, not unwelcome aftertaste. There were greens too, and the scallops themselves, which deserved a little more sear than they got.
As we ordered the steamed and fried rice crepes with pork bolognese ($9.50), our waitress exclaimed, "Ah, you picked the best thing." She was almost right. The little tubes were crunchy on the outside and soft within, and tore apart like string cheese. "Bolognese" has specific connotations, and Chef Phojanakong's version relies on, rather than reinvents, them—from the tomato base to the wee portions of pork to garlic and onion.
Every table in the restaurant got a plate of the sautéed Chinese sausage with Thai chili-lime sauce ($13). The meat had been sliced thin, then cooked quickly so that its edges curled and charred. This was the best dish of the night, a must-order. Each bite began with sweet, then, after a dunk in the sauce, ended with heat, a tongue-tingling time.
You can hear the food roasting, sautéeing, and frying to order from the two-person kitchen. It's cash only, and BYOB (for a fee). It fills up, with dates and groups, people who've been here before and don't mind the sometimes impatient service. They know which entrance to enter, and know to order the sausage. Kuma Inn is best for: a date with experience.