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$20 Dinner with Guy Wong 

The chef behind Miso Izakaya plays with Japanese and Southern influences. Just don't call it fusion.

Chef Guy Wong is standing at the tank of live blue crabs at the Buford Highway Farmers Market with tongs in his hand, shuffling through the bright crustaceans with a quick but casual touch. He flips one over, tosses a small one to the side, and inspects the belly of a third. All of this rustling gets the attention of a crab to his left. The crab stands up on her legs and puts her claws up at him, like a boxer defending a corner of the ring. He snaps the tongs in her direction and she snaps right back. Wong has found what he's looking for. A fighter. She goes in the bag.

The 30-year-old chef shops here most days of the week before heading into Miso Izakaya, the restaurant he opened three years ago on the edge of the now-fashionable Old Fourth Ward. He keeps a cap pulled down tight on his head and navigates the aisles as if he's memorized every turn, tossing a bag of snow pea shoots in here, grabbing a jar of Hondashi there. It's tempting to say that he works with the methodical efficiency of an accountant because, well, he is one. At least, he was an accountant.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Wong has been around restaurants for most of his life. His parents, Chinese immigrants, had a Cantonese restaurant called Sam's Gourmet in Sandy Springs in the early '90s. "A lot of Asian American kids who grow up around that do anything they can to try to get away from the restaurant business," Wong says. With that attitude in mind, he attended Georgia State University for a degree in accounting. He got an office job. Then, he got bored. He says, "It felt like being in school all day."

He quit his job and spent about a year in Osaka, Japan, attending culinary school. He came back with the plan to open an izakaya, or Japanese small-plate pub. Three years after opening Miso, he's hit a creative stride. His open-face steam buns with roast duck have attracted crowds. Dishes like Berkshire pork kakuni over stone-ground grits evoked an ode to his creative use of Southern influence from the AJC's John Kessler. Creative Loafing's food critic Besha Rodell named his soft-cooked egg on rice cake one of her favorite local dishes.

All of that praise seems to have encouraged Wong, but he doesn't seem beholden to it. Not long after Atlanta magazine named his ramen the best in the city, he took it off the menu because the elaborate preparation was interfering with executing the rest of the menu. He talks excitedly about future plans, about continuing to innovate. He has little patience and interest for the past. The buzz around his steam buns led him recently to a partnership in a new fast-casual, dim sum concept, Yum Bunz, that he expects will open in August or September of this year. He aims to continue his constant reworking and changing of the menu at Miso.

At home, Wong says he feels a little out of place in his own kitchen. His wife, Seven, seems to have a better handle on it. She quickly whips up some formula for their 8-month-old, Aiden, before Wong gets started working in the kitchen. The counters are quickly covered in snow pea tendrils and garlic skins and cornstarch for the shrimp and ginger peels. Before long, Seven is beside him, helping prep and clean, while Aiden runs amok in a baby walker. A stick of incense burns in a shrine. It's a family scene.

With a very basic setup in the backyard, just a propane tank and a burner set on some bricks, he cooks the shrimp to a fried crisp. With head and shell still on, the large shrimp can cook longer but still be tender by the end. As they fry in the wok, liquid seeps from the heads turning them bright red. The finished shrimp are greasy, sweet, and savory treats. The crunch of the shell perfectly contrasts the burst of tender meat.

The real centerpiece of the meal is Wong's take on Chawan Mushi. Using the crabs, a couple eggs, a slice of bacon, and a couple of handy techniques (straining, steaming), Wong makes a variation on the traditional Japanese egg custard that is as complex as it is comforting. There is the salty flavor of crab, the umami savor of dashi, the silky texture of egg, and the crisp snap of bacon all in one bite. It's a multifaceted, globe-trotting dish and it's bacon and eggs at the same time. All of this somehow fits just right in a Ball jar.

Wong's real strengths as a chef lie in this ability to weave his influences together until you can't really find the place where one ends and the other begins. He bristles at the notion of calling this fusion. "Ryan Smith [chef of Empire State South] has kimchee grits on his menu. If a guy like that does it, it's his creative genius, but if the Asian guy does it, it's fusion." He riffs on that idea for a while as we eat, laughing between giving little jabs like, "Hugh Acheson [author of A Turn in the South] is from CANADA." Wong comes across as proud to be a lifelong Atlantan.

Spread out on the counter in front of him, there are fried shrimp and crab shells and a bowl of simple sautéed greens and food in Ball jars. It sure does look like we're eating in the South.

Next: Three recipes from Miso Izakaya's Guy Wong

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