Let’s Talk About Mi: Asian Fusion From a Master

How fast should you eat your food? Like Henry James, my grandfather believed in “fletcherizing” his meals, chewing every mouthful 30 times. (A house guest of James once described the ghastly experience of coming down to breakfast one Sunday with a hangover and having to watch the great man fletcherize a bowl of cereal topped with a fried egg.) Despite my grandfather’s efforts, I am not a slow eater; any chance of that vanished when I was sent to an English boarding school. But dinner with my 13-year-old son would have been James’ worst nightmare. He’s the gastronomic equivalent of a speed reader. While I puzzled over the ingredients of yellowtail ceviche with yuzu-watermelon sorbet at Mi the other night, he dispatched an entire platter of sushi. I was barely on my second mouthful when he finished. “Afraid you’ll be late for the bus?” I asked.

My son gave me one of those withering looks that teenagers have perfected so beautifully. He picked up a little glazed pottery jug and poured more soy sauce into a shallow green dish. “May I have a taste of that thing you’re eating?” he asked.

The food at Mi is not designed to be gulped down before you head back to the next round of Diablo II on your computer. There is excellent sushi here, which comes in big pieces, but it’s not the point. The real draw is the Asian-fusion cuisine turned out by one of its first practitioners, chef Gary Robins. I first experienced Mr. Robins’ food around six years ago, when the former Gotham Bar & Grill cook opened Aja in the Flatiron district, where he combined Asian spices, herbs and cooking styles with American ingredients. He then went to Match Uptown, where he turned out equally intriguing dishes. They were subtle, but they got your attention. The ceviche of hamachi at Mi is a good example: seared strips of yellowtail with a crisp, salty crust that complements the soft, meaty texture of the raw fish beneath. The dish was served with a small salad of crunchy jicama, raw fennel and jalapeño, along with a tart sorbet made with yuzu and watermelon that tasted almost like grapefruit. It was a remarkable balance of textures and flavors, of sweet with salty, spicy with tart.

Mi brightens up a dreary block just north of Madison Square Park. The restaurant was designed by owner Sook Kang, who came to New York from her native Korea in the early 90’s. She acquired a rundown coffee shop next door to Mi and turned it into a highly successful operation, and opened Mi a year and a half ago. At first glance, you’d think the restaurant was Japanese. There’s a long sushi bar in front, but the samurai helmet that hangs over it, along with a pair of ceremonial swords and Buddha sculptures, is Korean (the helmet sports a pair of deer antlers that look a little comic, as though they’re an attempt at camouflage). A mannequin wearing a red silk Korean kimono presides over the green glass tables in the rear alcove, and a wall of backlit Korean letters decorates the raised platform, surrounded by a railing, that forms a separate, adjacent dining room, where lanterns cast a soft glow.

And since this is not a Japanese restaurant, part of the menu is devoted to dim sum, which Mr. Robins used to serve at Match Uptown. Shrimp summer rolls are stuffed with avocado, basil and glass noodles, wrapped in rice paper and served with a fiery carrot dipping sauce. Duck samosas, made with a light pastry, come with a rich apricot dipping sauce and coriander chutney. The spring rolls are great, crisp but not the least greasy, stuffed with jumbo lump crab and served with a tamarind sauce (eating time if you’re a 13-year-old: 2 minutes, 45 seconds). There’s

also a Thai grilled-squid salad with chick peas, watercress and green chili–cilantro oil.

You can see that Mr. Robins once worked at Gotham; he likes to stack his food. A tower of beef hovers over a plate of mashed sweet potatoes flavored with ginger, grilled shiitakes and a roasted red chili chutney (total eating time: 5 minutes, 13 seconds). Rack of lamb, sliced into chops that look like flying buttresses, is coated with Goan spices and served with artichokes, chanterelles and mustard mashed potatoes. Two thick chunks of miso-marinated Chilean sea bass sit like snowballs on cold, pepper-flecked somen noodles. A wedge of caramelized wild striped bass crusted in Indian spices floats on a leek and lemon-fennel vinaigrette, garnished with delicate sweet corn and crab wontons. Mr. Robins doesn’t pile up the five-spice duck, however. Thin, rare slices are arranged like wagon wheels and garnished with bok choy and burnished roast plums in a dark red-wine sauce.

Desserts, which took a while to arrive, are worth the wait. They include a great warm chocolate-soufflé tart (eating time: two minutes) and a passion-fruit soufflé with candied ginger and coconut sorbet. The feather-light raspberry Napoleon comes with Thai basil syrup and lemongrass-coconut curd. The warm pear financier with almonds is puffed up nicely but a bit too sweet.

The morning after our dinner at Mi, my son and I were walking down the street when he announced he’d like to take a speed-reading course. “It would be useful for reading computer manuals,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want to read poetry like that. You wouldn’t be able to savor the words.”

I almost said, “Remember that the next time you speed-eat your way through a dish like Gary Robins’ roast beef.” But I knew I’d get a withering look, so I thought better of it.

Restaurant Notes

Among the hardest-hit businesses in Chinatown since September are the restaurants, which are dependent on tourists. Dim Sum Go Go (5 East Broadway, 732-0796) is no exception. Not only were their phones out for weeks, their chef left. But this charming, cool-looking restaurant, conceived by food writer and consultant Colette Rossant and designed by her husband, architect James Rossant, now has new chef Charn-Hing Man, who comes from China via Hong Kong. The food is exceptional, especially the dim sum, which come in nouvelle pink, green and ivory-colored wrappers. The chef shops the local markets for his daily produce, and a new dish of juicy slices of wok-sautéed lamb marinated in soy, lemon and ginger is served with a vegetable du jour that looks like snow-pea shoots. Don’t miss it.

MI **

66 Madison Avenue

252-8888

Dress : Casual

Noise Level : Fine

Wine List : Short, mostly French and Californian; around a dozen sakes

Credit Cards : All major

Price Range : Main courses, lunch $13 to $21; complete lunch, $20.01; dinner, $21 to $29

Lunch : Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner : Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor