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First look: Miso Izakaya 

I received a small but noisy flurry of e-mails last week from foodies who went to the opening of Miso Izakaya (619 Edgewood Ave. 678-701-0128), a Japanese gastropub that has seemed to be on the verge of opening for months.

But when it finally opened last week, first-timers were disappointed to find that the izakaya, which takes its name from "sakaya" for "sake shop," didn't yet have a license to serve alcohol and was only serving sushi. Before I visited later that week, I called the restaurant and asked if it was serving its full menu yet. I was told that it was.

When I got to the restaurant, I asked again at the front door. "Are you serving your full menu?" I was again told yes, and so we were seated. I did indeed find that small plates, the main feature of an authentic izakaya, were being offered, along with two entree-style dishes. But I did not find the promised grilled, skewered items – the yakitori – or any ramen dishes.

I mentioned this to the server and she said, "This is a very soft opening. I would say it is soft, soft, soft."

So my first advice is that if you want to drink anything besides some complimentary wine and if you are craving ramen or yakitori, call ahead. My second advice is to wait another week or two, even if the bona fide full menu is available.

My two visits have turned up food that is going to need considerable improvement in a city that has not forgotten the food of the brilliant Sotohiro Kosugi, or, for that matter Dennis Lange's cooking at Yakitori Den-Chan. (Lange long ago abandoned that gig to become co-owner of Five Seasons Brewing. Chef Soto has become a sensation in New York.)

It's probably important to mention that the izakaya, a longtime Japanese tradition, has become a worldwide fad in recent years. The reason is that it fits the ubiquitous trend toward small-plate dining. Thus owner/chef Guy Wong's website is wittily named Tapanese.com. If only the food itself were as witty and creative. It is relentlessly unsurprising – a menu that, alas, offers nothing new to the city. The concept itself is new. The food is not.

On to the specifics:

I've sampled only nigiri – five varieties, including surf clam, fresh water eel, baby octopus, squid and scallop – and one hand roll (salmon skin) from the sushi bar. Nothing was wrong with any of it, but nothing stood out, either. I haven't tried any of the specialty rolls, but nothing on the menu struck me as particularly inventive. So, MF Sushi has very little to worry about.

One cooked dish that comes from the sushi bar, hamachi kama, was enjoyable. That's the flash-fried collar of yellowtail. You pick the flesh off the bone and drag it through the tart ponzu sauce that is pooled on the plate. It's plenty for two.

Of the izakaya plates, my favorite was actually the dirt-cheap agedashi tofu – large cubes of deep-fried silken tofu scattered with bonito flakes and served with a hot tempura sauce.

Our server recommended we try an off-the-menu order of karaage, one of the classic izakaya dishes in Japan. It's basically fried chicken nuggets. Our server recommended it for its "spicy taste." Sorry, they were chewy and bland, so we scooped up lots of the Japanese mayo served with them.

Haru maki, a spring roll filled with chicken, shrimp and vegetables, was unremarkable and a bit greasy. On the other hand, little buttered clams, served half-shell with sautéed ginger and onions, were delicious.

An especially overrated dish was the tonkatsu, slices of deep-fried pork tenderloin coated in panko topped with a dark sauce. Our first server recommended it heartily several times. It's another classic dish here served straight up on the plate with no interesting accompaniment.

We enjoyed a plate of tempura-fried shiitake mushrooms, sweet potato slices and tiger shrimp. But it too is a plain dish you can find elsewhere. Don't we expect more?

We tried both "chef selections," which come with a bowl of miso soup and salad. Our second evening, the server forgot both the accompaniments. When Wayne pointed it out, they insisted on not charging us for dessert.

Our first try was kakuni, "long simmered pork belly over rice." I found it amazingly bland and, even at $16, it wasn't a large enough serving to put me fully to sleep. The other entree – the one with the missing soup and salad – was absolutely the best thing we ate at the restaurant. It's ma po tofu with minced chicken over rice. The rice had that famous crunchy bottom layer, so you should stir the pot.

Desserts, where the restaurant could show some off-the-wall creativity, were half-heartedly inspired. Three profiteroles filled with an unpleasant green-tea "pastry cream" tasted weirdly old. We preferred the "pineapple cheesecake" – a custardy dish topped with yuzu-pineapple. But both are eminently skippable.

In this economy, I hate not being more enthusiastic. I stress that this is a first look during a soft opening. But, open it is, and chef Wong is probably going to have to produce a much more adventurous and better wrought menu if he wants to prosper.

Poetry, eros and food

Generally, I detest Camille Paglia, but she is spot-on in her description of Nigella Lawson in her most recent Salon column:

"Speaking of radio enchantment, it's happening in spades whenever British cuisine queen Nigella Lawson is interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition. I didn't pay much attention to Lawson's book and TV vogue, partly because I found her show's trendy fast editing too dizzy-making. But anyone who thinks Lawson's talents were mainly a function of her brunette mane and ample bust hasn't experienced her as a pure, disembodied radio voice.

"I'm on the record about the mediocrity of too much poetry these days (Elizabeth Alexander's mundane inauguration poem was all too typical). Well, English poetry is thriving in the subtle, mellifluous, adjective-laden culinary odes of Nigella Lawson (who has an Oxford degree in medieval and modern languages). After listening to her on my car radio on the way to work, I often arrive for my morning classes in an ecstatic haze. But hey, let's not dis that bust, which has gotten lusciously ample."

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