Lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Drinks and pastries Monday through Friday to 6 p.m. Dinner Monday through Wednesday from 6 to 10 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 6 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. MC, V. Local personal checks accepted. Prices: Dinner entrees from $12 to $16. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip about $65. Full bar service.
For a long time, Hilda's was a caterpillar -- a caterpillar of quality, mind you. Some fine dishes, catered or carried out, originated in this little storefront chrysalis on MacArthur Boulevard, but plain was the name. Like most caterpillars, Hilda's was easy to overlook. But look again: A butterfly has emerged. Hilda Eiber has designed a brand new restaurant that's one of the most sleekly beautiful in town.
Stark white dominates the dining room, with occasional blond woods and beiges to give you your bearings, and with track lighting to lend drama. Flashes of color -- the butterfly's wings -- come from the bright paintings that line the walls (all done by Hilda) and from the patrons themselves, each person framed against white wall or beige banquette. The light wood tables are inlaid with hand- painted ceramic tiles, and the menu covers are decorated by hand. (You can guess who did both.) For private parties, a small adjacent dining room can be separated from the main room by cleverly hidden sliding doors. And for mild weather, there's a large outdoor balcony overlooking the street. (The dramatically modern d,ecor seems to tickle people's imaginations. The stark beauty reminded one of our friends of Woody Allen's movie "Interiors." Another, less romantic soul reported, "It was like having dinner at Scan.")
Hilda is more than just a painter and designer of dining rooms. There's artistry in her kitchen, too, and in the presentation of the dishes at the table. But as in the real world, where some butterflies aren't free, the ministrations of this Renaissance woman will cost you. Entrees are mainly in the $15 range, and dinner for two will run about $65 with tax, tip and a modest wine. (The wine list is afflicted with an unfortunate downtown price list.) On the other hand, there's a smooth, solid professionalism here that compensates, that gives a feeling, in the end, of value received.
Hilda's regular, unchanging menu consists of about a half- dozen standard appetizers and entrees, along with "light meals": cr.epes, quiches, salads and sandwiches. In addition, there's an insert listing the day's specials, including house- made desserts.
To paraphrase Will Rogers, we never met an appetizer at Hilda's we didn't like. The chicken p.at,e (known on the deli circuit as chopped liver) is made of fresh, sweet chicken livers, not masked by overseasoning, and served with a dollop of old-fashioned, grainy mustard on the side. Even more simple is chilled asparagus, made with the youngest, thinnest stalks and served with just a wedge of lemon. In many restaurants, ceviche, a pickled fish appetizer, succumbs to two ailments: terminal fishiness and death by drowning in lemon juice. (Sometimes the second is an attempt to disguise the first.) No such maladies at Hilda's. The fish filet and scallops in the ceviche are impeccably fresh and beautifully textured, the acidity is delicate rather than overwhelming, and there's a light finish of what tastes like horseradish to give just the slightest bite -- the best ceviche we've had in a long time and possibly the best way to capitalize on really fresh seafood.
Soups here are expensive but good: turkey soup, for example, with a skimmed-yet-rich broth, firm vegetables and delightful spaetzle dumplings that hint of a bit of chicken fat in the batter. The simplest soup may be cold cucumber, with not much more than salt, pepper and a little dill. And the most complex may be the intriguing cold salmon soup, a veritable spice shelf in a bowl, one that makes for a good game of "what's in it?"
Duck with plum sauce, a frequent special, says as much about the competence at Hilda's as anything on the menu. The meat is moist and tender, yet it holds up -- this is no duck mush -- and the skin is crisp, the underlying fat carefully rendered. The duck is arranged with great beauty on the platter, layered with plums, sliced kiwi fruit and just enough sauce to complement the meat's flavor, not bury it. And it's a real sauce, cinnamon-spiked and sparingly sweet, not just a glob of plum preserve. The whole, formidable production rests on a bed of firm, nutty wild rice.
Very nearly as beautiful is the whole broiled trout, firm and crisp-skinned, lying in splendor on an immense, fish- shaped platter and surrounded by vegetables and lemon wedges. A couple of good but less dramatic dishes are shrimp with garlic -- seven big beauties with the lightest touch of what tastes like a mustard flavor -- and lemon chicken, the lemon juice nicely moistening and flavoring the meat. If you're partial to the flavor of parsley, look for beef roulades: thinly sliced round steak rolled around ham, onion and lots of fresh parsley (a major component of this dish, not just a cosmetic), and served in a mushroom-wine sauce.
The bouillabaise starts with the best of intentions -- first-rate, fresh seafood, carefully kept from overcooking -- but it's tame and seems to have forgotten its Mediterranean roots. Where's the olive oil? Where's the garlic? Where's the pepper? Where are the bay leaves? Even the accompanying rouille, whic should add concentrated zip, is itself bland, like a timid p.at,e. (The missing garlic turned up in the roast leg of lamb, a flawless dish with fork-tender meat, served rare and juicy as ordered.)
A word about the "light meals" section of the menu. Sandwiches and salads are good but unexceptional, the quiches first-rate. The best buy at $7.75 are the cr.epes, big, generously filled, skillfully done, with an ample mound of salad on the platter. A good "economy" meal could be designed around a cr.epe for about $15 with tax and tip.
Desserts? Wonderful. Mousses, tortes, pound cakes, all loaded with butter or cream or chocolate or coffee or fruit, one more irresistible than the next. Look for buttery chocolate mocha cake, and the formidable chocolate-coffee-cognac mousse.
Are there misses? Occasional ones, but they're infrequent, and offset by so many solid hits they're scarcely remembered. What Hilda offers is the kind of style and panache usually associated with the fast-track downtown restaurants. That she's providing it in a quiet uptown neighborhod is a major virtue in itself.