Korean food is ready for its close-up - with or without its fiery funk. The pleasantly posh new Miga, which dials down the chile volume without completely losing its soul in Center City's first upscale Korean dining room, is proof of that.
True, Miga lacks some of the intensity of my favorite charcoal-fired grill houses of North Philadelphia. But I suspect a lot of mainstream Philadelphians will settle into the cushy white leather chairs in this tented room and finally get to taste the wonders of a dolsot bibimbap, a hot stone bowl topped with crisping rice, a colorful pinwheel of vegetables and soy-sweetened minced beef. If they're lucky, they'll learn how to fold lettuce leaves around freshly grilled morsels of galbi short ribs, shredded poufs of tart scallion salad, raw garlic chips, and a dab of ssamjang paste. It's a mouth-filling one-bite package of cold lettuce crunch, hot seared meat and spicy savor that could very well become an addiction.
These alone are horizon-opening experiences I wish for every adventurous eater. So what has taken so long? Why has Korean cuisine remained the last frontier of distinctive Asian flavors yet to be assimilated into the American pantry?
The most obvious answer is that genuine Korean cooking - the kind that pungently perfumes the air outside the grill houses and soft-tofu casserole joints of Olney - sizzles at an intensity of fire-red spice that can intimidate a novice palate. The seriously fermented kick of old-school kimchi, cabbage fully ripened a few months after a proper earthenware burial in the backyard, is still well beyond the comfort zone of most mainstream American taste buds.
But there is so much else to love about the Korean table, from the generous array of free pickled nibbles that precede a typical meal (the banchan) to the tabletop grills that send up the ambrosial aroma of searing marinated meats, that it's puzzling why even an abbreviated version of this tradition hasn't made more forays beyond its established ethnic enclaves.
The real answers, in fact, may be just as much cultural and economic as they are culinary. Manager Kim Gould, the Seoul-born niece of Miga's owners, Sam and Jackie Cho, says there is a natural reluctance to "show off" in her culture that partially explains why Korean cooks have been shy about cooking for a wider audience. More practically, though, Korean American entrepreneurs have told me there are simply more profitable business prospects in sushi bars and corner deli salad buffets than in a native cuisine that, ultimately, is rooted in peasant cooking that rarely adds up to a big check.
But the growing interest in Korean flavors (and rising star Korean American chefs such as David Chang from Manhattan's Momofuku), is undeniable. So I was eager to see what approach the Chos would take when they opened the high-rent-district doors to Miga, in the former ¡Pasion! space.
To my initial disappointment, there is no hot young chef here riffing on gochuchang, pajun and bibimbap for the next generation. In some ways, though, the Chos' motivation is just as compelling. Jackie considers herself part of the last generation of Korean women who still know how to cook every dish from scratch. And Sam, a successful entrepreneur who's launched deli-buffets (Oh So Good; Green Village) and been-there-done-that with fusion concepts (Oasis), is eager to put his home tradition on a pedestal.
Their inexperience in the fine-dining world is at times all too obvious - in the uneven pace of service, in the frustrating half-stages in which Miga opened without its tabletop grills or liquor license, and for that matter, half its printed menu.
But there is a genuine warmth to the service here - eager to welcome unfamiliar diners to Korean cuisine - that, as the restaurant has become complete, makes Miga worthwhile.
And though this kitchen has largely toned down the fiery punch with its Western audience in mind (its kimchi, for example, is way too fresh and mild for me), Jackie's home-style touch still shines through much of the menu. This is particularly true with the banchan, the tiny dishes of pickled nibbles that come to every table, many of which are harvested from the Chos' two-acre home "garden." For pure variety and freshness, Miga presents a banchan bounty, from the pickled mirliton and crunchy daikon cubes to lightly wilted greens that range from nutty watercress to the leaves of pepper or sesame plants.
One meal brought whole tiny anchovies nestled amid green rings of hot chiles. Another brought freshly pan-fried zucchini rounds stuffed with ground meat patties. And then there were the special crabs - chopped raw and cured in an elaborate soy-based "ge jang" gravy thickened with ginger and garlic - that harbor meat with a uniquely slippery, sushi texture that my Korean American guest said she covets (but I'm still learning to appreciate).
All this before the food we ordered!
Like many Korean restaurants, Miga's menu is huge, with both strengths and weaknesses. The place has many of the standards down pat, including the huge pajun pancakes, their crisp outsides and soft interiors laced with everything from seafood to tangy kimchi or beef and hot peppers. There is an excellent version of jap chae, the springy, clear, sweet potato noodles in lightly sweet dark sauce that, in the veggie rendition, came with the fantastic crunch of exotic, coral-like rehydrated mushrooms. The dduk bokki, tubular rice flour dumplings that resemble soft gnocchi, came in a vivid orange sauce tinged with red pepper powder that, in combination with the dumplings' pleasantly sticky chew, stoked Miga's hottest glow.
There were some dishes to miss. The complete sushi bar is adequate, but totally forgettable. The sundubu, a soft-tofu casserole that some restaurants (like Jong Ka Jib) specialize in, was just so-so, lacking the bubbling volcanic heat and custardy softness I prize. The Jae Yook Bosam, an unusual dish involving cold steamed pork and raw oysters made famous stateside by Chang, would have been great if the oysters hadn't been oddly semi-frozen.
It was a rare off-moment for a kitchen whose food vibrated with freshness. And it doesn't get fresher than the myriad "BBQ" meats the servers grill tableside before diners' eyes.
The city-mandated use of electric grills at Miga (instead of the fragrant charcoal braziers of North Philly) is definitely a detraction. But the grilled marinated meats are still hard to resist, like the pear and sesame-tinged galbi short rib strip that sizzles beside its bone (great to gnaw on). The bulgogi stir-fry of shaved beef and onions is so good, with its sweet and garlicky soy marinade, it's a wonder some Korean Philadelphian has yet to make the small fusion leap into a Korean cheesesteak. (With Korean "tacos" all the rage, why not a steak sandwich?)