October 28, 1996 | About Gael

Lo and Behold! Mirezi

        If the rich commodities sprawl that spawned Samsung were to launch a restaurant in New York, where would it camp? Not directly below the tawdry schlock of 14th Street, I would have guessed. Not even on that rigorous block where Forbes and the steel-and-glass starch of Parsons keep the polyester pollution at bay. And yet here in the awkward, cursed space where half a dozen feeding dreams have flashed and faded, most recently Markham, we have Mirezi, “future land” in Korean, looking like a million bucks and celebrating the mixed metaphors of an Asian melting-pot cookery.

        Mirezi – say it meh-reh-gee, as in gee whiz – is, the publicists suggest, the newest passion of Samsung heiress Miky Lee, whose $300 million stake in DreamWorks has given her a certain credibility. Officially, though, it belongs to Cheil America. And already our town’s dining nomads have caught the scent and seem to be contentedly savoring the Asian tapestry of chef Anita Lo’s Korean-Japanese-Thai-Vietnamese inventions.

        With the confidence of cash flow and artful cunning, designers Min Yang and Gene Park have transformed the gawky architecture by smashing walls and floors to create a soaring glass entry speckled with river-washed stones. Tabletops are sheathed in copper, with bamboo mats and maple chopsticks resting on gleaming black pebbles. Eleven itsy LCD monitors – scattered in the duplex stucco – froth with snippets of Asian drama and commercials. Incomprehensible unless you’re inches away, the four-inch squares become a staccato of light above banquettes draped in an elegance of soft-hued linen – ash rose, old wine, pale green.

        Money subsidized long, drawn-out rehearsals too. We blunder in very early on an evening set aside for friends and are persuaded to stay. A small cadre of consultants crisscrosses the field, whispering plays to the slightly dizzy but enthusiastic servers. It is not the moment to clock the kitchen, even though I notice we have managed to put away more than our share of the welcoming giveaway edamame – soybeans we are instructed to pop out of the blanched-and-salted pods. A kind of Japanese popcorn.

        Yes, the food is flawed. Sharing dishes from the center of the table, Chinese-family-style, I can’t get enough of the crunchy green-papaya salad in a hill surrounded by spicy chicken wings in radicchio cups or of bibimbap, the peasanty Korean rice topped with rations of beef, squash, fernbracken, and a peppery sauce in a covered clay pot. Layering sticky rice between grilled Portobello mushrooms and calling it a napoleon is more clever than delicious, but the dish’s lacelike crisps of shiitake and the elusive perfume of white-truffle vinaigrette hold promise. A stack of juicy baby-back ribs with a sweet and unfamiliar glaze – ketchup, Korean pepper sauce, garlic, sesame – is more successful than seared tuna with scallion oil and cucumber. Red snapper, slashed and deep-fried whole, rides the plate standing up like a trained Lipizzaner – designed to be pulled apart and rolled with rice and a chili-garlic sauce in oak-leaf lettuce. A shade less cooked and with a tangier sauce, it could become a contender. But even though these complaints pepper my notes, all four of us vow to come back.

        Ten days later, still not yet officially open – waiting for an auspicious day, by Korean wisdom – Mirezi is bouncing along, its nicely spaced tables quite full and a gathering of serious grape nuts assembled to taste wine guru Steve Olson’s esoteric selections from the winemakers of the world against the eclectic flavors of Anita Lo’s food. Not that wine – by the bottle, glass, or taste – plus sake, and beer from eight nations, tells the story. Olson’s ten-page beverage encyclopedia offers fortified wine, too, whiskey and whiskey (blended and solo), brandies, grappas, cordials, ciders, and tisanes. Our six are settled into an alcove where excessive wattage overhead is filtered by two small blown-glass light shades that make a lovely splotched constellation on the walls – and play havoc with past-prime-time epidermi.

        The dining-room team, while amiable enough in its very handsome collarless shirts, remains a bit green. But the kitchen, still slow, has begun to master the complexities of the menu. Though she grew up in America with the pan-Asian diversity – her mother is Malaysian – Lo is French-trained with stints in the kitchen of Michel Rostang, Guy Savoy, Bouley, Chanterelle. She got this job through a classified ad and was whisked off on a whirlwind Far Eastern eating binge to Seoul.

        Now her kimchi is authentic and stuffed with the savor of fermented shrimp, fish sauce, and spicy Korean chili paste. Sensational stir-fried chive buds taste like Chinatown. And her Western impulses lend new refinement to the creative reaches of her menu – divided by plate size (tasting, small, and large, from $5.25 to $21). Among the tasting plates: Luscious pan-fried meat dumplings sit on a shiso leaf. Compared with the generous heap of crisp, expertly fried calamari with two dipping sauces, the skimpy maki roll of grilled eggplant seems rather chintzy. The daily kimchi offering is a must, of course. And pepper-laced potato pancakes, too. Indeed, wading through the starters, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the heat is coming from. It’s everywhere, in a chorus of exotic perfumes, neither namby-pamby nor aggressively torrid. There is the seductive sweetness of coconut and green curry in the pan-roasted chicken with roasted shallots and peas. Crisp rice pepper adds texture to red snapper with cashews and a red curried carrot sauce. The bibmbap disappears in a flash. The milder oxtail broth with sate beef and soft flat noodles provides contrast. Black sticky rice, set off by crisp threads of scallion and orange zest, pleases more than the too-cooked duck breast it accompanies.

        Desserts tweaked with just a cautious hit of Asia will satisfy most Westerners. Crème caramel with sautéed kiwi, strawberry, and mango. A chocolate soufflé “dumpling” with orange dipping sauce. Warm apple-sesame tart with green coconut ice cream. My favorite is pear poached in wine flavored with star anise and cinnamon beside a rich little frangipani tart. Fruit soup with lime jelly reminds me of Chinatown dessert soups I found untranslatable. Just one small bleep on this welcoming Pacific Rim.

 59 Fifth Avenue near 13th Street. 

Cafe Fiorello