Here's an uncommon story line: A restaurant opens, isn't very good, and then gets better. And better. Until finally, it's one of the most compelling places to eat in town.
The rarity of this narrative is somewhat ironic, seeing as when a place initially disappoints, often we all sigh, "Let's hope it gets better with time." But we know it won't. It never does, not in any significant way, beyond the working out of service kinks and kitchen efficiency.
But at Miso Izakaya, our hopes have been rewarded. The restaurant started out as a promising but ultimately flawed attempt at channeling an izakaya, or Japanese pub, when it opened in February 2009. The liquor license took too long to come, but worse than that, the sushi was disappointing and the izakaya-style dishes too few and uninspired.
And then, slowly, Miso began to improve. At first it was the booze. When the liquor license finally materialized, the shochu list was immediately impressive in its variety. Then, the small plates began to show promise and creativity. When I reviewed Miso about two years ago, I found some genuinely fun food. But nothing compared to what the kitchen is delivering today.
In the sleek dining room decorated with twisted branches and light wood, chef/owner Guy Wong and his sous chef Melissa Allen have steadily upped the ante with their menu over the past 24 months. First came the buns — or as Wong sold them, Chinese sliders — soft rice flour buns encasing decadent pork belly or shredded crispy duck. The buns are the perfect two-bite snack, even better when paired with booze, and downright irresistible as a post-booze munchie.
The buns caused people to reconsider Miso, but Wong and Allen didn't stop there. The menu continued to evolve, offering dishes such as takoyaki — a line of octopus dumplings, soft in the center and covered in a flurry of oscillating bonito flakes. Salt-and-pepper quail has lacquered skin like a Peking duck, and a smattering of red pepper delivers the faintest hint of spice to finish off the salty, sweet meaty mouthful. Spicy glazed eggplant is all roasty, caramelized smoosh — eggplant as vegetal candy.
In the menu's snacks section, look for the rice cake topped with a soft-cooked egg. When broken, the yolk runs into the crunch of the rice and makes for a dish that channels the childhood pleasure of eggs with toast. Tempura avocado, while almost comically rich, is nonetheless a wonder of a dish, the avocado retaining its creamy decadence inside the piping hot crackling tempura batter. Fried items — oysters, chicken wings, hamachi collar — are hardly revelatory, but are all crispy and fresh tasting, and great alongside a glass of shochu.
The size of the menu, with more than 40 small plates, makes eating at Miso a fun mix-and-match adventure without ever having to touch the run-of-the-mill sushi menu. Sushi seems to still be Miso's bread and butter — every time I was there, most of the tables were filling up on rolls with standard, cutesy combinations. While passable for neighborhood sushi, I'd rather not waste my dinner on super crunch rolls when there's so much fun to be had elsewhere.
Even so, there are a few duds on the izakaya menu. Meats are served somewhat oddly in a small bowl of lettuce. The pork and kimchee gets away with it because of the dish's inherent funk and spice. But cubed steak, while tender, falls flat in its sweet sauce atop the wilting lettuce.
The odd thing about Miso is that while the inventiveness and spark on the menu have unpredictably continued to evolve, the things I mentioned earlier that do typically tend to right themselves — service issues, kitchen efficiency — remain a problem. Service can be outrageously slow, and you get the feeling that's just how they roll. When your waitress chirps happily for the fourth time that the drink you ordered 30 minutes ago is "coming right up," with no hint of distress or apology, there's the feeling that the place is perpetually understaffed and that's how it's going to stay. On a busy weekend night with a wait for tables, it wasn't clear if two or three waiters were working the floor and bar, but it was clear it wasn't enough.
Other service oddities include an omakase tasting — a tempting option at five courses for $25 — that's unavailable right now despite being prominently displayed on the menu. When I tried to order it, my waitress pointed to some small print that read "December 2010." "That's December's menu. They haven't figured out a new one yet for ... well, for after December," she said. Miso's website is also woefully out of date. It's clear this is a small-time operation run by folks who are learning as they go, which is both charming and frustrating. The recent addition of a late-night menu that includes ramen is another example of the ever-evolving, ever-improving nature of the place. If that spirit of improvement could extend to the floor, Miso could easily become one of the city's must-visit restaurants.
And so, I find myself falling back on that old cliché: I hope Miso's service gets better with time. Because the food, remarkably, has done just that.
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