In the world of kimchi, a modest BYO storefront in midtown beckons.

Posted: May 27, 2007

I love the sound of rice crisping against the hot stone bowl of a dolsot bibimbap. You need a little patience for it to be just right. What with a gorgeous pinwheel of fresh veggies and meat arrayed on top of a bed of rice, and a hearty dollop of rusty brown Korean chile paste, kochujang, spooned on top, the temptation is to quickly stir it up the moment it hits the table.

But let it sizzle. Wait. Smell the rice below starting to roast against the hot sesame oil-slicked bowl before you give it the mixing stir. If you top it off with kimchi-spiced pork and mix it well, every spoonful should warm your body with a tingle of heat mingling with the snap of shredded vegetables and a toasty rice crunch.

It's a sensation I crave regularly, which explains why little Miran has come to blink on my radar like a happy red chile blip.

Not that Miran is a fancy place. It's a modest storefront BYO on a quiet block of Chestnut Street in West Center City, with 40 seats set around brown Formica tables inset with convenient do-it-yourself butane grills. At the touch of a button, a silvery ventilator hose shimmies down from the black ceiling like a vacuum snorkel when a plate of kalbi short ribs arrives, ready to be grilled.

There's nothing extraordinary about the setup here. And Miran, truth be told, isn't even the very best Korean restaurant where I've eaten in the Philadelphia area. My true favorites tend to be tucked away in the north, where both Kim's (on Fifth Street) and Seo Ra Bol (at Second and Grange) still light their in-table grills with glowing charcoal embers. For bubbling red soft tofu casseroles, pretty Jong Ka Jib on Fifth Street is a worthy destination.

But why should an avid bibimbapper have to travel so far from Center City for a fix in a region that apparently is so rich in Korean culture? Half (or more) of the sushi restaurants in town are owned by Koreans. But it's as if some ill-advised restaurant god deemed Center City to be a kimchi-free zone. Or nearly so.

There have been a handful of Korean eateries over the years, but few I found exciting. Most commonly, Korean restaurateurs second-guess their cuisine's true spirit when presenting it to a mainstream American audience, dulling the fiery spice, skipping the raw egg garnishes, and neutering the meal's fermented funk.

Miran tunes its menu, however, to the perfect heat volume for its crowd, a steadily bustling mix of hip young Asian students from nearby Penn and Drexel and non-Asians who have sought out this nook because they want an authentic taste.

And Miran's chef, Yong San Huh, delivers a very solid repertoire of well-cooked standards. The huge savory pancakes, for example, are spot-on and a fabulous way to begin. Served on a hot iron platter, these moist rice-flour and egg pancakes are almost like Korean pizzas, crisped around the edges and laced with tender seafood, like shrimp and calamari, or turned to sunset orange with kimchi spice and crunchy long scallions.

I also loved the big steamer basket with mixed dumplings. The two pork dumplings - one turned pink with chiles, the other greened with sauteed chives - were my favorites. The veggie dumplings were tasty, although too mushy inside.

Miran has a big menu, and it can be difficult to decide. But it also has an effusively friendly ambassador in waitress Julia Rosa, a bubbly Brazilian who has taught herself enough Korean to be quite an authority on these dishes.

I disagreed with her recommendation of one of the sweet-and-sour stir-fries (why, I wondered, would anyone order a Chinese dish here?). But I was happy with virtually every other choice. The bibimbaps, both the standard cold shredded vegetable-beef version (great for a summer lunch) and the hot dolsot varieties were satisfyingly good. You can choose from a range of toppings with the dolsot, from the classic sauteed beef to eel or kimchi and pork, my personal favorite. There is also an unusual vegetarian option worth trying. The ginseng-like root called codonopsis, a Chinese pick-me-up herb believed to help restore "chi," life force, is rehydrated, hammered flat and cooked to an almost squash-like tenderness with spicy kochujang sauce.

Speaking of chile fire, Miran lets you know where this food comes from without taking a torch to your tongue. Then again, well-cooked spice has a way of sneaking up on a hungry diner, raising its red flag on a time-bomb delay about five bites into a dish. It's most evident in some of the fiery soups, like the bubbling soft tofu chigae casserole, or the hot pots of seafood noodle, or budae sausage stew, which leave a raw warmth on your lips when you slurp the long noodles down.

I knew it was working its magic when my Indiana-bred neighbor, Joe, suddenly sweaty and pale-faced, stepped away from the table to get a breath of fresh Chestnut Street air. Of course, everyone has a different tolerance.

But there's more to Miran than mere spice. Many people will no doubt come here for the Korean BBQ, a variety of meats that arrive marinated and raw, that you are expected to cook yourself on the table grill, then wrap in fresh lettuce leaves smeared with sweet and salty soybean paste.

The beef kalbi short ribs are the classic choice, and I loved the meat's light soy marinade of garlic, ginger and a variety of fruits (Asian pear, kiwi), which lets the natural flavors shine. The thickly cut kalbi, though, wasn't quite as tender as it could be. The more thinly sliced bulkogi, rib eye enhanced with lots of sweet onions, was a much more satisfying dish. The pork kalbi tossed in a spicier marinade tinged with sesame oil was another winner.

Miran wasn't perfect. Avoid the chewy octopus hot plate, for example, as well as those sweet-and-sour stir-fries. I was also underwhelmed by the modest assortment of panchan, the complimentary little dishes of pickled vegetables that usually precede a meal. The crunchy kimchi cabbage, blanched sprouts, cold sweet potatoes and spice-rubbed daikon radish were fine. But I've had more diverse, and more vibrant, panchan elsewhere. Then again, I'd have to drive to some of those. And sometimes, a bibimbapper's craving just can't wait.

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