Suzie's new Soba is a nice Asian touch for Hampden

October 22, 1998|By KATHRYN HIGHAM | KATHRYN HIGHAM,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sue Hi Hong, known about town as Suzie, is a little bit superstitious. So she took it as a sign when she found an ornamental gong that was a perfect fit for a restaurant space she was considering in Hampden. The location, Hong knew, was just right for Suzie's Soba.

You might recognize that name from Hong's restaurant in the Belvedere. Since business there is slow in the evening, Hong had been searching for a site at which to open a dinner-only restaurant, one that was small enough for her to handle the cooking.

She found what she was looking for in the storefront formerly occupied by Cafe Hon and Stella's. The restaurant opened this past summer, with a completely redone interior. Seafoam-green walls painted softly with undulating grasses, wild grapevines entwined with tiny white lights and mosses, and fish sculpted out of foam core create the effect of an underwater world. It's magical.

So is much of the Asian fare at Suzie's Soba, from a tempura-fried maki roll filled with shrimp and basil to a simple house salad with impeccably fresh baby greens, pickled ginger and marinated shiitake mushroom slivers that explode with flavor.

Those shiitakes also turned up in our tuna donburi, a traditional Japanese dish layered with slivers of carrots, snow peas, green onions and red peppers over short-grain rice. An egg had been broken over the top, cooking as it mixed with the sweet soy-based sauce and the hot fish, rice and vegetables. Chopped cilantro and thin strips of nori, the seaweed wrapper for sushi rolls, added another dimension of flavor. It would have been perfect if the tender sushi-grade tuna hadn't been cooked quite so long.

Besides several donburi dishes, entrees fall into two categories: sauteed noodles and soup-based noodles. Our sauteed soba dish of dried wild spinach, garlic and pine nuts almost looked like a plate of linguine and pesto. We loved the earthy flavor of the wild spinach, which was brought out even more by cha soba, a wheat noodle with the delicate taste of green tea.

A pale, fat noodle was used in the Oriental chicken soba, slathered with a spicy-sweet sauce and studded with sesame seeds. Everything was cut into bite-size bits, slivers and shreds, from the boneless chicken to the broccoli, snow peas, red bell pepper and carrots.

Of the soups, we tried the Korean-style yook gye jang, which combined thin cellophane noodles, shredded beef, green onions, Napa cabbage and bean sprouts in a tangy broth flavored with kimchi, the spicy Korean condiment. It had a rustic simplicity and a more traditional flavor than other dishes.

For starters, there are a few sushi rolls on the menu. We preferred the toasty flavor of the tempura shrimp roll to a standard tekka maki, made with pale pink tuna. A simple salad of Napa cabbage seasoned with fresh kimchi, and crisp fried dumplings filled with cabbage and bean sprouts are other options.

Desserts aren't made in-house, and they're not Asian-inspired. But you can always go the minimalist route and satisfy your sweet tooth with a cup of green tea.

Suzie's Soba

1009 W. 36th St.

410-243-0051

Hours: Open daily for dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$9; entrees, $6-$17. No liquor license

Food: ***1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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