One of the city’s most enterprising restaurant groups, Hand Hospitality, has thrown its weight behind Korean-American fine dining chef Sol Han to debut the group’s first full-scale new restaurant since the pandemic hit. Backed by Hand, Han’s new restaurant Little Mad — located in Nomad at 110 Madison Avenue, between East 29th and 30th streets — is opening on June 8 and represents a departure from more traditional norms for the decade-old group.
In this new direction, Han, an irreverent 33-year-old guy from Long Island who previously worked in upscale Italian and French kitchens including Ai Fiori and Le Coucou, is the energetic, confident face of Little Mad. Unlike Hand’s other establishments that skew toward more familiar east Asian recipes — including Korean and Japanese dining hits like Her Name Is Han and Izakaya Mew, as well as partnerships in fine dining spots like Atoboy, Atomix, and Jua — Little Mad is anchored in Korean flavors but guided by Han’s years spent in French and Italian fine dining kitchens. “I have never worked in Korean restaurants,” Han says. “So I’m just rolling the dice with it.”
Little Mad’s playful menu mixes all of those influences: A beef tartare is studded with shiitake mushrooms, pockets of smoked tofu, and a jammy egg yolk. A ubiquitous menu staple, the Caesar salad, has been flipped inside out in Han’s hands, with zucchini taking the stage as the main vegetable in the dish, drizzled with an anchovy, garlic, and parmesan dressing infused with black sesame paste, and accompanied by a couple of fried zucchini flower blossoms.
Han added tableside service to the experience, too, in a wink to his past fine dining life and the restaurant’s tagline to “go a little mad,” he says. For the beef tartare, customers are offered a tiny hammer to break apart the accompanying giant green-hued chip made with maesangi — a specialty seaweed — in order to scoop up the tartare. Little Mad’s rice bowl includes bone marrow that the kitchen team hollows out and drops into the bowl in front of customers.
The restaurant occupies the former space of Korean hot pot spot On, a previous Hand Hospitality restaurant that shut down earlier this year. Former On regulars will recognize plenty of similar designs at Little Mad. The space retained its modern, industrial feel, and On’s same low-lit wooden tables are repurposed here with copper inserts filling the space left by old induction burners. But Han has added his own style to the restaurant, including knocking down a few walls to create an open kitchen for a more communal, relaxed vibe. Dinner service is now set to a hip-hop soundtrack.
“If you want to put all of me in a restaurant, this is kind of all of me in a restaurant,” Han says.
Han says that he was on the cusp of a promotion from executive sous chef to chef de cuisine at Le Coucou before the pandemic hit and shattered those plans. “We were in that transition, and then boom — the curse happened,” he says. Han first cooked for Hand Hospitality founder Kihyun Lee as a customer at Le Coucou; now, as the restaurant industry crumbled, he directed his attention toward pitching Lee on what would eventually become Little Mad.
Inspired by Han’s infectious enthusiasm for the future of restaurants — even in the middle of the ongoing crisis — Lee brought him on board as a partner at Hand. After On shut down, Little Mad was built out in its place in about two months, according to Han. As the restaurant came together, Han filled out his team with past colleagues: Executive sous chef Jonathan Culbert and assistant general manager and sommelier Guillermo Martinez used to work alongside him at Le Coucou — which remains closed — and general manager Jean Lee formerly worked at Michelin-starred Scandinavian spot Aska and John Fraser’s restaurant group.
Little Mad’s young talent and modern, playful menu, criss-crossing multiple types of cuisines, is the beginning of what Hand founder Lee sees as an exploration outside of more traditional east Asian spots from the growing restaurant group. “We’re always focused on what we have in front of us, but we want to broaden our horizons,” Lee says. “Little Mad is a starting point for us to work with more chefs that bring even more diversity to our group.”
Little Mad is open for indoor dining only to start, from Tuesday to Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.