It's been hailing neon fish roe and raining spicy mayo on the Philadelphia dining scene lately. And the storm of stylish new sushi counters bringing it on has given the city a fresh contender for "most overdone" concept. (Italian BYOBs are so 2007.)
True: I'm good for an o-toro splurge every month or so. I also crave regular helpings of creamy orange sea urchin, ponzu-splashed fans of gossamer-sliced fluke, and a hearty snack of chilled buckwheat soba noodles topped with tempura fried shrimp.
But with few exceptions, the tsunami of new options has done little to deepen the quality of the city's Japanese cookery. Understated Misso may be the exception.
Perhaps the most obscure of the newcomers, Misso marks the downtown debut of one of my favorite suburban sushi chefs, Bruce Kim. He has plenty of new competition, but most of these sleekly designed spaces are better for sipping sake-tinis than savoring sublime sushi.
For example, at Kaizan, the sultry revamp of a former barbecue joint in the Academy House, the typically warm eel donburi was served cold, the king crab legs were puny and drowned in gooey sauce, and I got a mouthful of errant scales from a slice of madai. At Kujaku, the Asian retrofit of Peacock on the Parkway, the fish was decent, but the restaurant so confused that I was given maple syrup instead of soy sauce to blend with my wasabi. (At that time, it also served breakfast).
Yakitori Boy is such an intriguing Tokyo-chic hideaway for Chinatown, I kept expecting Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson to show up for a session in one of the private karaoke booths upstairs. The "Japas" small-plate menu of skewered nibbles and sushi? Not much to sing about, really, though the grilled rice cakes and abalone sashimi did evoke a pleasant hum.
Misso is hardly as flashy. Its location is so hidden, tucked back into the shadowy ground-floor arcade of a high-rise at Broad and Spruce, I wonder if obscurity alone was the reason its totally worthy predecessor, Miraku, closed after just a short stay.
If Kim keeps it up with inventive delights like his "Japanese tuna balls," a meatball-inspired take on tartare that tastes something like a spicy, crunchy tuna truffle, I suspect Misso has a chance to stay for a very long time.
This BYOB is a pleasant enough space to appeal to the nearby theater crowds, with plush leather seats at the polished granite bar, comfy banquettes, and a sweet, outgoing staff. Misso could draw the local neighborhood trade as well, especially if they lose the horrid elevator-music soundtrack in the dining room ("Unforgettable . . .").
Kim is probably best known among those show-going suburbanites as the man who made Sushikazu in Blue Bell one of the finest sushi restaurants in the suburbs. He and his wife, Sunny, who also cooks, sold that restaurant 21/2 years ago to relatives and moved to Virginia for family reasons. Their recent return, and a gamble on Center City, is quite a different challenge.
But judging from three lovely meals, I'd say they're catching on quickly (they're even planning outdoor seats soon). The reasonably priced menu is hardly unusual, but Kim's kitchen executes both the familiar dishes and his signature creations with a precision, quality of ingredients and consistency that so many others lack.
Kim's more creative rolls - many of which he mastered at Sushikazu - are worth seeking out, like the pristine slice of tuna draped over a ball of crunchy rice topped with a dab of minced spicy tuna and a jalapeño chip. And the Area 51, which adds the crunch and sweetness of kiwi to lemony yellowtail.
I have mixed feelings about kiwi with fish, but Kim adds just a touch, using the pairing again with a raw yellowtail starter, which also gets spicy jalapeño chips and a sour splash of citrus ponzu to counter the heat. A simple little pine nut, and a miso-mustard sauce, are all he needs to transform an appetizer of seared tuna tataki into something memorable, the oil of the nut drawing extra sweetness from the fish.
Other raw fish starters were done with textbook precision. Sashimi was sliced into perfect bite-sized batons that revealed their pristine flavors at the touch of teeth: blushing pink mildness of madai snapper; tangy albacore, its buttery flesh lightly torched for contrast; ivory kanpachi that postively glistened with a sweet omega-3 shine. The spicy scallop roll was the perfect petite size, and rang with a bright measure of heat to frame the sea-sweet chunks of shellfish.
One of Misso's servers (who, unfortunately, has since left the restaurant) made a number of clever suggestions to enhance our meal, like steeping our cold sake (a Junmai Ginjo called Shikaiou "Thing") with shredded cucumber, a subtle twist that actually refined the drink. Combining tempura ice cream with deep-fried bananas for a "tempura split" was another playful improvisation.
But it was a recomendation for the uni-unagi nigiri that was a revelation. The creamy ribbon of urchin sandwiched between sweet eel and a pad of firm rice is one of the best "gateway bites" I've found for intermediate sushi eaters who want to be more daring.
There is plenty here for non-adventure eaters, too, like the crisply tempura-fried vegetables, shrimp (and soft-shell crabs) cloaked in a translucent batter. And the chicken and pork katsu cutlets, which are superbly tender and moist beneath their delicate crusts. The broiled salmon "shio yaki" is simplicity at its height, the pink flesh crackling with a salty micro-crust that is just perfect dipped in citrusy soy ponzu.
Misso's teriyaki is also a solid bet, thanks to a gingery sauce patiently steeped from broth, onions and sake that is deep but not too sweet. It's great over the steak, which was tender, though a shade overcooked. But the most memorable variation was the beef negimaki, thin slices of sirloin rolled around a core of crunchy scallions. Sliced into tubes and stood on end, they look like the carnivore's reply to a California roll.
It sounds like such a simple pleasure in a city now awash in new Japanese kitchens. But Misso is one of the few that actually get it right.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Jasper in Downingtown. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.