“The room is … utterly charmless,” my friend the architect said, standing up after our meal at Musi, turning from his cramped seat near the door and sizing up the shoe box of a space at this new BYOB in South Philly.
“But the food?” he said, pausing to savor the memory of a meal highlighted by silk chili-infused bow ties in lemon butter that were so entrancing we ordered them twice. Fingers touched his lips, paused, then bloomed in a chef’s kiss.
Musi’s corner room is as minimalist as it gets. A gallery of unframed photo portraits of the owner’s restaurant friends dangle from a wire on its plain white walls. A low ceiling amplifies the already boisterous noise and compresses air that on warmer nights can get as muggy as a locker room. A view into the little open kitchen at the far end, where chef-owner Ari Miller and his tiny crew prepare food at steel counters, brings to mind the image of someone cooking for a dinner party in his living room.
Even for Philadelphia’s BYOB culture, which has its share of tiny, no-frills spaces, Musi’s corner nook in Pennsport, formerly South Helm, is tight. The square, four-person tables are so small that patrons, required to sit side by side rather than around the table, typically hang off the edges. Musi’s considerable charms, however, reside both in its quirky intimacy and its passionate embrace of the unconventional.
The trade-off for the best of our signature BYO genre has always been food and service that far exceed the humble packaging, with the kind of rents that allow freedom to experiment and give fresh talents access to their only-in-Philly debut stage. And Musi, named in honor of a fishmonger and mentor in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Miller lived for a dozen years, certainly is delivering food that deserves our attention.
Hyper-seasonal. Intensely local, from the pork to the grains. Miller’s food is inspired by tight relationships with this region’s food artisans and is often foraged from the landscape nearby. (Ramps seem so last year when you see him playing here with pickled knotweed and devil’s walking sticks.) As a result, the menu of small plates can morph nightly, which is handy, because a table of four can easily graze through the entire page of a dozen items. That includes a cardamom-scented malabi custard with honeyed nuts to assure a sweet finale, and a moist hunk of chocolate cake cradled in a wave of toasted fluff.
Miller, an alum of both Zahav and High Street on Market, has a talent for conjuring memorably focused flavors from the bounty that flows through his pantry. There’s a reason the polenta here tastes so intensely corny. It was milled in-house from heritage grains grown at Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster, then transformed into an earthy pudding set beneath rutabaga cooked two ways (pickled and poached) and scattered with pistachios and mint. A month later, that same polenta was set and cut into toasty rails that propped up tips of foraged sprouts between creamy dabs of farmers’ cheese tinted green with herb oil.
A puree of leek greens and malted local rye tart with vinegar set off the crispy-skinned fillet of a seared porgy. Pithy orange peels are transformed into a creamy balm of citrus dressing softened by a kiss of honey that was the perfect foil to a salad of bitter chicories and pickled kumquat scattered with blue poppy seeds.
A head of romanesco is roasted hard to a smoky char on one side to accent the brassica’s sweetness, then set over a creamy play on words — a romesco sauce made with almonds and caramelized onions — that was even better as a pairing than a pun. According to Miller’s wry sensibilities on the menu, it’s “our least Instagrammable dish!” (Wrong. Any plate with a socca chip, fried egg, and tiny pickled hakurei turnip is ready for its 2019 closeup.)
Shiitake caps and oyster mushrooms are roasted to a heightened umami over the plancha before they’re tumbled with puffed wild rice, fiddlehead ferns, and flowering yellow kale raab. The creamy mayo chive sauce that adds a cooling richness to the 'shrooms was inspired by a famous dish from Orna & Ella’s, the well-known (now-closed) Tel Aviv restaurant where Miller once worked.
Miller’s years in Israel, which began with a brief stint in the army (he left after six months), and during which he became a features editor and food writer for the Jerusalem Post, before ending in the restaurant kitchens of Tel Aviv, have informed his edgy affinity for off-cuts and a contrarian aesthetic that he refers to as “beauty and brutality” in tandem on a plate.
It’s a credo that shows its most beautiful instincts in the meaty chunk of beef neck simmered for a day with little more than bones and water before it was seasoned with anchovy garum (a Malaysian gift from Ange Branca at Saté Kampar). It bobbed, tender and comforting, in a crystalline broth alongside a dumpling stuffed with celery root, parsley, and creamy beef fat.
“I love the introverted bits that are less popular,” Miller says of these “fifth-quarter” off-cuts, “because you have to reach a little further for them.”
The more brutal side of that philosophy is reflected in his beloved tartare of beef heart, which he’s been known to mince from the whole organ in front of a live audience at other venues. The lean flesh tastes excellent with plenty of mustardy zing if you close your eyes. But when you open them to see it jiggling on a plate, bound with jellied meat aspic like a carnivore’s gefilte, it could easily be mistaken for cat food. (No matter how many tiny red sprouts get artfully laced over top). The country paté is a far easier-to-love slice of whole-animal artistry, a textbook terrine of coarse-ground local pig studded with black walnuts, the tang of bacon, chicken livers, and the Pennsylvania bonus of a fresh pretzel knot and sweet poached pears.
That updated pretzel is part of what jump-started Food Underground, the pop-up catering company Miller ran for two years after leaving High Street. His tongue-in-cheese embrace of Philly-centric high-low cuisine earned a legitimate cult following with the “Frizwit,” his take on the cheesesteak upgraded with grass-fed local beef and Philly Bread Co. rolls that occasionally appeared for sold-out engagements at the Garage on East Passyunk (“Cheesesteak Vegas,” says Miller.) It seems only fitting, now that Miller has an actual restaurant to cook from, that the Frizwit still appears in pop-up status, drawing crowds to the picnic tables that flank the restaurant the first Monday of every month, a day the kitchen normally is closed.
Made with quickly seared quality beef from Primal Supply, caramelized onions deglazed with Yards beer, and a creamy cheese sauce made from Philabundance cheddar, it provides a deeply savory and drippy satisfaction. I admire that Miller didn’t try to reinvent the cheesesteak — he simply gave its elements some more integrity.
There is also a wistful note of nomad nostalgia to those pop-up nights, which are a reminder that even during Musi’s normal menu and hours, Miller is still going through growing pains as a restaurateur. One of my editors, after hearing my early raves, had not one but two online reservations canceled by the restaurant after Musi belatedly decided not to remain open those nights. Staffing also remains an issue for a service team that’s friendly enough but that can easily be overwhelmed tending to tables with basics (cold water, clean plates).
“I learned how to make pasta, so now I have to learn QuickBooks,” Miller said, acknowledging the not-so-obvious challenge of the business skills needed to own a small restaurant.
The pasta part? Miller has that down. I was sad the bow ties had disappeared by my return visit. Then I was thrilled by the surprise of the sorprese, the folded noodles that look like tortellini but that aren’t stuffed. Their Zanzibar peppercorn-sparked pasta shapes lavished in the moss-green silk of pureed turnip tops and mustard greens.
The roasted pork sausage seasoned with urfa chilies was an obvious star, topped with foraged “green things” seared in its rendered fat. But the toothy cavatelli underneath made with the whey left over from fresh ricotta are what I keep imagining my teeth snapping through. The pillowy postage-stamp-size agnolotti stuffed with citrus and miso delivered such bold personality, bobbing in a broth laced with the seaport funk of anchovy garum, that a $5 mini-portion — inspired by Fountain Porter’s $5 bargain burger nearby — should leave an outsize impression.
It’s much like Musi itself, where the tight quarters and minimalist decor make a deceptively understated backdrop for a far richer experience that, once some logistics work themselves out, should continue to evolve into one of the city’s most thought-provoking dinner dates.
100 Morris St., 215-377-9466; www.musiphilly.com
After running a pop-up dinner event company called Food Underground, chef Ari Miller has surfaced with a tiny but compelling brick-and-mortar BYOB in Pennsport. His talent as a freethinking chef, cultivated in Israel and Philly (Zahav; High Street on Market), is obvious in a small-plate menu that showcases hyper-seasonal, local, foraged ingredients and beautifully focused flavors. (The monthly first-Monday “Frizwit” cheesesteak nights are also cult-worthy.) The BYOB’s free-spirited quirks can be both charming and frustrating. The mini-space is easily overwhelmed; the service still figuring it out; its online reservation system occasionally out of sync with ever-changing hours. But once Miller masters the logistics, the potential here is clearly bright.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Farm greens with citrus sauce; mushrooms; country pâté; seared polenta; fresh pastas (black pepper sorprese; chile bow ties); citrus-miso agnolotti; fish with malted grains; pork-urfa sausage; beef neck in bone broth with green dumplings; chocolate cake and fluff; malabi. Frizwit cheesesteaks, for sure.
BYOB The kitchen has a light touch and features lots of seasonal produce, so mid-weight, earthy wines with good acidity are the right match. This is the spot to show off your latest natural wine.
WEEKEND NOISE When the shoebox of a space gets full, this is a lean-in-to-talk situation.
IF YOU GO Dinner Thursday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Frizwit cheesesteaks only first Monday of the month, 5 p.m.- till sold out.
Plates, $5-$18 (3-4 plates per person).
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible. There are two steps at the door and the bathroom is not accessible.