Restaurant review: Hae-Paul’s

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From the January 24, 2013 edition

“We don’t want to just kick food out, we want to put love into it” I overheard Hae-Paul’s accomplished chef tell admiring customers the other day. After tasting some of the chef’s dishes, I sensed the love.

Cooking unusual — in a good way — scratch-made, comforting yet healthy-edged, American and Asian fare at “please keep doing it” low prices, Hae-Paul’s offers an unbeatable new Downtown combination. Haven’t heard of Hae-Paul’s? It’s the just-renamed, ultra-casual South Fourth Street operation originally called Natalie’s (changed to distinguish it from the Worthington pizzeria sensation) manned by Paul Yow — former head chef at Barcelona — and womanned by Hae Ray, Yow’s partner and wife, whose Korean roots make their way into the restaurant’s cuisine.

Hae-Paul’s rechristening signals a maturation accompanied by beer and wine availability and “we’re finally ready for prime time” Thursday and weekend evening hours. As for its super-friendly if occasionally still overwhelmed service (an early, understaffed Natalie’s-era visit was fraught with waits and confusion), those kinks are getting worked out.

So cop a squat in Hae-Paul’s bright and clean, misleadingly coffee shop-like room (whose single standout feature is a skillful portrait of chef Yow), order a prudently curated adult beverage (e.g. Revolution Anti-Hero IPA, $4; Vina Borgia garnacha, $5) and peruse the value-heavy, one-page menu and great chalkboard specials. Soup du jour-wise ($4 buys a giant bowl), a recent leek and butternut squash had a deep flavor, hefty yet lean body and surprising jolt of spice.

The inspired Green Pea Dip starter ($5) defied expectations. Instead of a chilled, dunk-it-yourself ensemble, it was three toasted whole wheat mini pita pockets pre-stuffed with a warm and practically fat-less combo of thick lentil puree and coarsely ground peas. Enlivened by a Sriracha-y sauce, these kicky, beany, neo-Middle Eastern micro-sandwiches were served on a sorta tiny salad dressed with a zesty pepper jam.

Healthy and tradition-bucking aspects of Hae-Paul’s much-above-average, lemony Caesar Salad ($5) arrived via just-cooked-through, relatively unobtrusive broccoli pieces. The chopped romaine base also sported homemade buttery toasted bread-wedge “croutons.”

A deceptively mundane-sounding Ham and Egg Sandwich ($8 with a side) was delicately crafted yet substantial and, hell, just plain wonderful. Stacked on lovely saffron-tinted, housemade butternut squash bread were shaved, roasted veggies (like zucchini), an egg and broccoli omelet “patty,” grilled ham and winning “avocado cream.”

Characteristically, Hae-Paul’s excellent Bulgogi (at $11, the menu’s most expensive entry) wasn’t run-of-the-mill. Its tender, pleasantly sweet and salty, juicy beef was thicker than usual and had an uncommon hint of background heat. Completing the platter were barley rice and a medley of lively — if oily — sauteed vegetables.

Fixable oily issues likewise slightly marred the otherwise nifty Mung Bean Cake ($5) starter, Jap Chae (glassy sweet potato noodles with veggies, $7) and thinly sliced (and undercooked when I tried it) potato wedge side dish; Hae-Paul’s other sides are not-bad baked beans and a unique slaw — both oddly doused with smoked paprika.

Sides accompany other biggie, distinct and slammable sandwiches like the fusiony, tangy and hearty Korrito ($7.50; crisply grilled flour tortilla packed with tender, sesame-inflected pot roasty meat, barley rice, cilantro, black soybean hummus and an addictive, sweet, sour creamy and buttery “candied jalapeno sauce”) and a towering Natalie’s Late Night Snack ($8; toasted brioche roll with “cider roasted” brisket, caramelized onions, melted swiss, sun dried tomato pesto and more). Like Hae-Paul’s marvelous and must-have Flourless Chocolate Torte ($3.50), you could definitely taste the love in them.