Asian appeal with style and kick

At Suzie's Soba, one can do more than curl up with a good noodle

Sunday Gourmet

October 06, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Suzie's Soba, a graceful little Asian restaurant in Hampden, has never quite gotten the attention it deserves. Baltimore has other fine Japanese and Korean eating places, but none with the quirky charm of the noodle shop owned by Sue Hi (otherwise known as Suzie) Hong.

It's a deliciously funky space, starting with the cheerful neon lips slurping neon soba noodles out front. Inside, you walk past a decorative open kitchen to get to the closely spaced tables that line both side walls in back.

If the weather is good, keep walking. All the way back is outdoor dining -- part deck, part enclosed garden, with weathered wood planking, umbrella tables, candles, potted plants and vines that wind up the walls. It doesn't look like a restaurant's deck; it looks like something you or I might put together in one of our more creative moments, with fairy lights, a shell collection laid out for decoration and mismatched white plastic furniture.

You can argue -- and some people have -- that Suzie's Soba is a little pricey for Hampden, but what you're paying for is not only fine Asian food but style. And not only for a stylish setting. Hong's artful plates and bowls and casseroles and baskets alone are worth the price of admission.

I can't tell you how the Cornish game hen stuffed with sweet brown rice, chestnuts and dates cooked with red pepper, ginger and garlic is because they had run out of it that evening, but just the description should give you a sense of how intriguing the food can be. Of course, there are also the more orthodox choices like teriyaki chicken, bul kogi and seafood tempura.

Start with a half avocado filled with fiery raw tuna and a creamy dressing edgy with lime and wasabi. An Asian-accented mesclun salad with shiitake mushrooms, pickled ginger and slivered red pepper strikes the right balance between Eastern and Western ingredients. Scallops, marinated and grilled, are a wake-up call with an interplay of exotic flavors. Maki rolls, filled perhaps with crisp bits of soft-shell crab, work equally well as a starter or a light meal. And you can't go wrong with steamed dumplings, plump with a ground chicken filling.

Order carefully at Suzie's Soba if you don't like red-hot food. I can only admire the spicy citrus pork loin and the seafood hot pot from afar. As beautiful as they look, when I try them, smoke comes out of my ears. I stick to dishes like the chicken don, a suave little casserole based on rice with white meat, snow peas, carrots and mushrooms cooked with egg and a light broth. The bul kogi, which starts with a good-quality rib-eye steak, is marinated and served in a fine and mildly spicy-sweet sauce. Mesclun greens and rice brighten the plate. From the lighter-fare selections, the poached ginger-lime chicken, a salad with greens, mango and avocado, would be a knockout if there were a bit more avocado and mango involved.

I've had several of the noodle dishes in the past, and they are always worth ordering, but lately I've gravitated to the more expensive starters and entrees. If you can resist them and stick to the pasta, you can have a satisfying, budget-friendly dinner here. There's a decent wine list, Japanese beers, sake and something that goes surprisingly well with the spicy food: fresh-squeezed limeade.

For dessert, you can get a homemade raspberry sorbet with a sprig of mint, which should be perfect after a fiery meal. But it pales in comparison with the banana tempura -- hot, soft and batter-fried with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. There's also an apple pie by Ms. Desserts and green tea and ginger ice creams.

Don't go to this small, appealing place if you're in a hurry. The staff isn't large, and, when things get busy, there can be a wait. Suzie Hong's daughter may be your server; it's a family business, which is one reason it seems right at home in this neighborhood. But the main reason is that there's nothing quite like Suzie's Soba anywhere else in Baltimore -- which is true of all the best shops and eating places in Hampden.

Suzie's Soba

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1009 W. 36th St., Baltimore

Hours: Daily for dinner, lunch through October

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$9; main courses, $8-$18

Call: 410-243-0051

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

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