Kuma Inn – The Pioneer in Asian Tapas Still Delivers

What’s the last time you went out to dinner and felt like you might be entering an opium den? 
 For me, it was last week when I headed to Kuma Inn for dinner. It’s been around since 2003, but back then, Kuma Inn was one of the only places doing the small plates Asian menu that is seen at so many restaurants today. It is a stalwart on the Lower East Side dining scene, and has been able to stick around in a place where restaurants close almost as fast as they open. 
 See how dark this picture is? Put on sunglasses and look at it again. Now you know how incredibly eerie it is, walking up these decrepit stairs to a tiny, candle-lit, casual dining room. 
 The restaurant is small, and though it isn’t cramped, it is definitely cozy. I wouldn’t mind coming on a date here, especially considering that in the casual atmosphere you can BYOB. I chose champagne, because…really…why not?
 Yellowfin Tuna Tartare with Rice Noodle Crisp.
Silky pieces of fatty tuna blended with sweet and tart apples, made soft from maceration in salty soy sauce and scallion oil. Crisp pieces of scallion enlivened the mild fish and the rice crisp on top added a crunchy texture and vaguely nutty taste that broke up the texture of the tartare. It’s easy to see why this is a signature dish – it is totally harmonious and exciting to the palate. 
 Steamed Edamame with Thai Basil-Lime Oil.
Normally I would never order edamame-what a waste! Thank heaven I capitulated to this request from one of my table mates, because this was totally delicious! Tender beans, coated in a slick of sour, fragrant, slightly spicy oil were so addictive that I couldn’t stop eating them. 
 Sauteed Chinese Sausage with Thai Chile-Lime Sauce.
This was the STUFF. The sausage was reminiscent of maple glazed bacon – sweet, sticky, crunchy, but with spices like star anise, ginger and pepper coming through to cut the sweetness of the glaze and the fatty pork. The sauce on the side was nothing sort of incendiary, and its bright, tangy flavors tasted Thai to me. Once again, this cut through the sweetness and brought all the background flavors to the forefront.
 BBQ Pork Buns.
This was a special that is – apparently – on the menu all the time, and with good reason. Unlike Danji’s unctuous pork belly buns, these are made with slightly leaner, though no less moist, meat. Charbroiled edges and soft, robust tasting meat melded with the soft rice buns, sweet hoisin sauce and crunchy, herbaceous daikon relish. Not mindblowing, but an interesting interpretation of pork buns for those of you who don’t like a fatty mouthfeel.

Wait a minute…

Does anyone really NOT like a fatty mouthfeel?
 Sauteed Market Mushrooms with Bamboo Shoots.
Like the edamame, I was ready to give these a pass, but they turned out to be one of my favorite dishes of the night. The assorted mushrooms were hearty and full of that beefy, rich, umami taste that only mushrooms have. They were in a sweet and savory broth that tasted not unlike the flavor of the pork kakuni at Sakagura. Not at all spicy, just salty, meaty, tangy and incredibly satisfying. Kind of like a pork broth melded with teriyaki sauce. 
Please tell me there was pork in the mushrooms. That would explain my love of this dish. 
Mussels in Kaffir-Lime Lemongrass Coconut Curry. 
Juicy, meaty mussels melded with sweet coconut, fragrant kaffir lime and spicy curry. The curry was not hot spicy, but aromatic spicy. It enhanced the subtle coconut flavor and the tart lime perfectly. The mussels’ natural salinity played off the earthiness of the curry powder, and the lemongrass provided a heady, intoxicating aroma that gave the whole dish a high, hazy note. 
Let’s be frank…by the end of the meal, we were begging for spoons to scoop up the rich broth. 
Chopsticks be damned.
For a tiny room, seemingly cooled only by freestanding fans, this place served some great food. The service was speedy, the price was right and the BYOB was a total win. Though none of the food was something I haven’t had before, it was all incredibly well prepared, in excellent portions and exhibited flavors that were exciting and vibrant. 
And hey…now I can say I have eaten dinner in somewhere that, at first glance, did look like an opium den.
 Kuma Inn on Urbanspoon


  1. I need one of those pork buns and the tuna tartare STAT!