What’s going on at Front and Morris Streets in Pennsport in the corner restaurant space across from a sound barrier along I-95 south?
Ari Miller sweeps a hand across the snug dining room: “We are paying reparations for the fact that we didn’t study harder in high school, basically," he said brightly. “We’re cooks. We’re opening a restaurant. This is Musi."
Miller, backed by sous chef Dana Pellicore and line cook Caitlin Bias, has set Feb. 8 as opening night at the 34-seat BYOB, whose open kitchen and spare, luncheonette-like atmospherics are pretty much left over from the space’s previous occupants, South Helm, 1st Ward, and Langostini.
As for Musi’s food, “we’ve been sort of casually referring it to as relationship cuisine," Miller said.
“The idea of what we’re doing here is really seated in that notion of watching [farmer] Ian Brendle and Lancaster Farm Fresh come in with these boxes of cool and wonderful and perfect and exotic produce and meats that we get to bend to our will. And this is sort of an expression of it. This is working with Heather [Marold Thomason] at Primal Supply [Meats]. ... I want something where ... I’m in contact with these people because I want to be as much a part of their success as they are of mine.”
The relationship also extends to the customer, he said.
Musi (100 Morris St., 215-377-9466) is starting with an a la carte menu of 10 dishes, plus two desserts. (Photos were not made available in advance, and the menu descriptions are simply a list of ingredients, such as “beef heart tartare, aspic, sourdough” and “country pate, soft pretzel, mustard, and pears.”)
Eventually, Miller said he’d offer a fixed menu that he won’t call a tasting menu.
“I think a tasting menu is more of like precious, small plates one after the other, whereas this will fluctuate,” he said. “Like, it’s really like let us feed you. Sort of if your grandma had sort of like a bit of a drug-addled, disco bent. We want you to leave nourished and satisfied. We want to honor the fact that you’ve chosen to come here over any of the thousands of other places that you can go to and less than a thousand places that are probably worth it. But we want to honor that trust.”
Figure on about $80 per couple. “It’s still the dinner price point,” he said. “I mean, we’re in this little corner in Pennsport in this little shoebox of a space, and we want people to be able to come and feel like they’re welcome here and it’s accessible to them, but also leave a little like high from the experience.”
The name is pronounced “moo-see” (”like what a cow says and what your eyes view,” Miller says) and it’s named after the Bucks County-bred Miller’s favorite fishmonger in Tel Aviv, where in his pre-chef life he picked bananas on a kibbutz before waiting tables and working as a journalist.
When his newspaper lacked a food critic, “I took that on myself and spent a year just eating everywhere in Tel Aviv and Israel," said Miller, 42. "And then when the world economy collapsed and newspapers collapsed, I ended up just wandering into this little deli, asked if I could [work there]. ... I was just enamored by it so much. Homemade breads, homemade cheeses, all these baked goods and boutique wines. ... They told me to show up the next day.”
The atmosphere on the line was intoxicating. “The drinking was excessive,” Miller said. “I remember reading Kitchen Confidential long before I got into the kitchen and then thinking like, ‘All right, cool, this is going to be fun if I want to cook,’ but I get into the kitchen and I did not expect it to be so much like that in Israel.”
After this place was shut down, he moved to a bar called the Minzar. “I didn’t know how to hold a knife yet, and I would show up, and they’d hand me a wad of cash and send me to the Carmel market and be like, ‘Make it happen,’” he said.
During a trip home, he looked up Michael Solomonov, a friend of a friend. Miller did so-called stages -- basically, short-term jobs -- at Solomonov’s Zahav and Percy Street. “Mike told me I’d have a job waiting for me if I ever want to come back,” Miller said.
By then, the political situation in Israel was weighing on Miller’s mind. “Between air-raid sirens and a job offer, I was ready,” he said.
Miller went to work at Percy Street, the barbecue restaurant then on South Street, as a sous chef for Erin O’Shea. “I learned a lot from her, but I missed fine dining a little bit. I was talking to Mike about it, and he says, ‘Oh, there’s this new guy in town named Eli Kulp, and you should go check out what he’s doing.’”
After working at Fork, Miller landed a job with Kulp and Ellen Yin next door at High Street on Market.
“That was just a ridiculously eye-opening experience,” Miller said. “Eli has this capability to sort of unlock vision in people. I mean, look at the crew that came out of that group: Alex Bois, Sam [Kincaid] and Jon [Nodler], Michael Griffith, whose space I’m taking over. If you ever stopped to just take stock of how much talent was accumulated in that space.”
While at High Street, he said, “I was sort of gigging with cooking these private dinners on my days off, and I was really enjoying that. It was a great testing ground to really just start to experiment with all this stuff. I would see these people come into High Street and Fork, like Ian Brendle and Tom Culton and farmers bringing in pigs in plastic bags slung over their shoulders, and I just wanted that. I didn’t want to be observing that. I wanted to be the reason why those people were coming in.”
He left High Street to start a private-chef business called Food Underground, and “I just started creating every opportunity that I could to cook, going to the food cart at Garage [in South Philadelphia] and dinners at [the Rittenhouse demo kitchen] Cook and every last thing.”
Food Underground had everything he wanted, especially creative freedom. “But it was sort of nomadic,” he said. “It easily could have been transformed into something more sustainable and still be nomadic and still be roaming, but I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted something where I had a home base.”
A brick-and-mortar restaurant has its own set of challenges. “Learning the business side is a lot of trial and error,” he said. He has received business guidance from Angie Branca of Sate Kampar, Kiki Aranita of Poi Dog Philly, and Judy Ni of Baology.
It is open Thursday to Monday, starting at 5 p.m. Miller said Mondays will become “a more family, neighborhood, or industry night with a simple menu of soup, salad, a lasagna, and dessert.” Reservations can be made through Resy.
Note: Miller is not the same Ari Miller who owns 1732 Meats.