Fresh Look: Miso Izakaya

Revisiting Guy Wong’s flagship restaurant

Guy Wong is juggling furiously. Yum Bunz, his “fast dim sum” restaurant on Marietta Street, is finally scheduled to open on July 8. Ton Ton, a ramen and yakitori joint, is in the works for the upcoming Krog Street Market development. He has made progress on a full-fledged, contemporary take on Cantonese cuisine called Big Boss Chinese, set for Decatur. Wong also has distant plans for a Chinese street food operation called Rickshaw Kitchen Stand in Home Park. And then there’s Miso Izakaya, Wong’s home base since 2009. Miso is the place that set all this juggling into motion, serving as an incubator for his acclaimed steamed buns, steaming bowls of ramen, and smokin’ yakitori.

How has Miso matured? I asked Wong to explain how he views Miso today, especially relative to his new ventures:

“I see Miso as the flagship of all this, the focus. It’s been a bit like an R&D lab. For example, I just loved ramen, and noticed that Atlanta had so little of it compared to places like New York. So that’s how the ramen lunches started out. Then seeing others enjoy it so much, it was clear that we were onto something. And we continued to try new things and push to make it as good as it could be. That’s where Miso is today, improving our attention to detail, making the menu sharper, pushing each dish to its potential, being more conscious of how things are plated. We’re always trying to blend something familiar with something new. Trying to over deliver on flavor in every dish.”

Wong’s intent with Miso has always been to tinker, to strike an of-the-moment chord, and to appeal to a range of diners. The menu of small plates, almost all $5-$10, continues to beg exploration and encourage sharing amongst friends. While still concise — all on one page — Miso’s menu spans a variety of mini-genres: Japanese standards, Mantou-style steamed buns, fusion-y salads, Chinese veggie dishes, Korea-by-way-of-Japan grilled meats, and typical sushi bar maki.

Four years later, Wong’s attention to detail is more evident than ever. The shoyu tomago, a soft-cooked egg over crispy rice, is simply gorgeous. There’s an undeniable sexiness in the barely set yolk oozing through a delicate split in the egg. Sure, it looks a lot like Momofuku’s famous soft-cooked egg, but for $3 I’m not about to complain. A simple stack of crispy agedashi tofu is equally magnificent — delicately fried on the outside, firm-but-silky on the inside. A salty tentsuyu broth seeps in from below while the smoky accent of dried bonito flakes is sprinkled above. It’s a common dish executed uncommonly well.

The spicy sashimi salad, a longtime menu staple, continues to impress. A pile of spicy tuna and salmon sashimi with cubed mango sits over a sesame oil–soaked nest of carrot. The back and forth between sugar and spice grabs your tongue’s attention and just won’t let go. A sizzling dish of karabi (marinated slices of beef short rib) plays similar games with notes of smoke and fat and spice. More fun arrives in the form of steak and eggs kushiyaki — two skewers with alternating bites of tender short rib meat and whole, hard-boiled quail eggs. Searing from the traditional binchotan grill gives the steak and eggs a tender, smoky edge.

I’m not going to tell you that Miso is perfect, and, I’m sure, neither would Wong. A seasonal salad of red Russian kale with cashew brittle and toasted coconut was too tough and lacked enough brittle to make it truly interesting. And the crispy duck bun, at least on this occasion, was completely missing the crisp.

Such misses can be forgiven when you’re happily riding the reasonably-priced adventure that is Miso’s menu. A revamped signature cocktail list helps smooth things over even more (though these cocktails come in more expensive than most of the dishes). Wong brought in star bartender T. Fable Jeon to accelerate an already interesting bar filled with shochu and sake into a leading cocktail destination. These new drinks show intrigue, exotic flavors, and visual appeal that match the food on the table. Take the Unsung Hiro, for example. The first thing you notice is a huge block of ice in the glass and a generous sprinkling of something black across the top. Is it pepper? No, it’s actually salt infused with lapsang souchong tea, a flavorful cue that first registers along the lines of a salt-rimmed margarita, but then segues smoothly into the richer flavors of rye and ginger and honey present in the drink. This is a seriously successful and creative concoction, as are the other cocktails that play off pan-Asian ingredients like barley shochu, lychee, pink peppercorns, and yuzu sugar.

With drinks like these, and dishes like the quail egg kushiyaki or agedashi tofu, Miso continues to show that it won’t settle for sitting still. The joy will, hopefully, be in watching Wong juggle the continued evolution of Miso with the rollout of so many new offshoots. It’s an act he seems eager to attempt.