August 23, 2011

Mia Restaurant Offers Mystery, Flavor

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Imperial Japanese caricatures. Modern Buddhist paintings. Impressionist portraits. Parading among background splashes of royal gold and bold warm colors, the art pieces at new Commons eatery Mia were as mysteriously eclectic as the name of the pan-Asian restaurant itself. What was this new kid on the block trying to do? Putting some curry on a fancy plate, turning down the lights and throwing in a wine list, and expecting to pass off everyday Thai food as haute cuisine? And did I mention Japanese raw fish and Indian papadum flatbread thrown bewilderingly into the menu?Mia is a like a birthday present you have to slowly unwrap. It is not the gift you will fall in love with instantly, but rather, an extremely pleasing, almost captivating reward once you get to feel and understand it. At the end of my meal at Mia, I felt a deep-seated warmth within me, one that came from more than just the dishes’ spiciness and the sake’s heat, but also from the knowledge of the intense heart that went into creating each dish.

The melange of Japanese, Indian and Thai dishes reflects owner Lex Chutintaranond’s international background: A native of Bangkok who also owns downtown tapas bar Just a Taste, Chutintaranond cites Japanese and Indian cultural influences in his family. “The food is the story of my life,” he said in a recent interview. “I let the food speak for itself.” As you delve into the mysterious gift that is Mia, you also progressively strip away the vestiges of the swanky-chic exterior and begin to understand that Mia is really a simple restaurant that reflects its creator’s heritage. “Here, the star is the food, next comes service and then ambiance rounds out the experience,” Chutinaranond said. According to him, most restaurant patrons are seeking a dining ambiance that transports them to another place and time. At Mia, the atmosphere evokes a fantastical, Michelin-starred scene of city posh and social vogue. Here is where Chutinaranond’s business savvy and cultural knowledge combine to create a singular restaurant experience that elevates your senses while leaving your tastebuds firmly grounded.

A complimentary aperitif of warm miso sake soup greets you at the beginning of every Mia meal. When slurped down in one mouthful, it feels like the heater being turned up two notches in the dead of Ithacan winter — instantly soothing and invigorating. Both soups on the menu — one with coconut milk and more reminiscent of northern Thai cuisine, and the other a classic tom yum broth of succulent shrimp and lemongrass that was more southern Thai in style — balanced the elements of sweet, sour, savory and spicy with culinary finesse. Neither overpowered by sour tamarind nor overwhelmed by hot chilies, the soups delivered just enough acidity and spiciness to whet my appetite for the following appetizer, which was deceivingly modest but extremely complex. It was my clear favorite of the evening — the diver scallop dumpling.

The pan-seared scallops, which sat between two chewy white dumpling sheets, were firm to the bite but tender within. Bonito flakes — made from dried fish — added a depth of savory umami flavor to the dumpling, complemented by tangy julienned ginger.  I did look a little like a crazy man grinning from ear and ear when munching on the dumpling, floored by a wildly sophisticated dish. Japanese chili flakes rounded off the appetizer by imparting a spicy aftertaste, which was easily doused by sipping on Mia’s distinctly citrus “cilantro martini” or, on the other extreme, further accentuated by downing its sharply spicy “hot saketini,” flavored and garnished with chili.

Among the extensive selection of entrees, the pan-seared red snapper filet won me over with its crisp crust and supple flesh, nestled on a chunky, vinegar tomato sauce. Chutintaranond also looked like a crazy man with the widest smile in the world when describing how close this dish is to his heart. “We always enjoy eating this in Bangkok. My mother makes the same sauces herself and she taught me how to make them.” He still insists on personally making from scratch the sauces that are the core of many of his dishes.

For dessert, you will not go wrong with sabayon pistachio kulfi, which also reflects the union of Chutintaranond’s Indian roots and the Italian heritage of his wife, for whom Mia is named. Kulfi is an Indian interpretation of ice cream, creamier and denser than the American version. At Mia, the addition of whipped Italian sabayon creates a light, silky, custard-like concoction, littered with crunchy crushed pistachios and bursts of tartness from thinly sliced plum.As we left Mia and stepped onto the pavement of the Commons, it almost felt like we were transported back to Ithaca — from somewhere between Bangkok and Manhattan, somewhere between traditional and modern, and somewhere between real and unreal. Unwrap Mia yourself, and you will understand what I mean.

Original Author: Brandon Ho