A Quirky Splash of Color
Soizic Spin-off Ushers Industrial Dining to Uptown
It was the “adult float” for dessert that sealed the deal for me at Mua. By all rights, that first dinnerin early December could have imploded under the pressure of severe cultural dissonance. But the latest foray into fusion by artist Hi-Suk Dong and his chef-wife, Sanju Dong, (proprietors of Soizic near Jack London Square and, years ago, Café Pastoral in downtown Berkeley), succeeds on terms set by imaginations. A scoop of caramel ice cream floating in a mug of double chocolate stout makes a perfect follow-up to tender chunks of lamb tagine redolent with Moroccan spices, and a pre-meal Mua Manhattan concocted with Buffalo Trace bourbon, elderflower liqueur and a brandied cherry resting colorfully at the bottom of the glass. All the while, reggae and jazz play on the sound system.
You can get a sense of the Mua aesthetic before you set foot inside the door. Start at muaoakland.com, a simply formatted Web site with tabbed pages set against a background photo of one of the restaurant’s concrete walls. The home page announces upcoming events in the local art community, such as its first exhibition, Painting Now: 2009, which opened to coincide with January’s First Friday Art Murmur. The navigation is clunky, and when you click on the words “under construction” (if you can find them, hidden on a “press release” page), you get a slide show the restaurant interior and a few dishes.
“Under construction” would make a good Mua motto. Much of Mua looks unfinished. The spray-painted name on the auto-row warehouse exterior looks like graffiti, illuminated at night by a sidewalk spotlight that seems to say the grand opening is perpetual. No one greets you in the minimally adorned foyer; you can either climb stairs to the balcony lounge or walk straight ahead through the double-length granite bar to the host’s podium on the cusp of a vast dining room. It looks like an artist’s studio with a clutter of miscellaneous objects, cabinets and lamps pushed toward the walls to make room for enough tables and chairs to seat about 75.
Exposed ducts, and pipes rough wooden beams run overhead and a couple of ceiling fans hang from the peaked two-story-high ceiling; huge painted sketches lean against the back wall; video and slides are projected on the thickly slathered white concrete wall; a table in the rear, between dance-club-worthy speakers on stands, awaits the deejays who spin on weekend and Monday nights.
It’s hard to tell how much of the look is random and how much is by design. The only clues we gleaned from the somewhat sphinx-like Hisuk Dong were his artfully bohemian attire and the way he physically shuffled bare-top tables (with the look of laminated bamboo) and chairs (patterned with a bamboo-like weave) with the swift, deliberate manner of a confident interior decorator. Flux and fun—and a constant, but not deafening, ambient hum of music and conversation—are the order of the day and night.
Every bit as eclectic as the décor, Mua’s menu embodies the same bold conception and subtle implementation that has long characterized Soizic. Artisan cocktails and small plates are a dime a dozen, but Mua’s variations are striking, from the épicé gimlet (Ocho Plato tequila, jalepeño, agave nectar, $12) through tempura-fried, nori-wrapped ahi tuna sashimi ($15), a cheese plate with fig cake ($9) and tapas-size servings of sautéed zucchini ($5), cornbread ($4) and mung bean–kimchi pancake ($6) to main courses of short ribs with baby bok choy ($15), free-range fried chicken ($13) and a vegan platter with a chickpea-bulgur-quinoa-walnut patty, kale stew and more ($14).
On one visit, by the time she’d sipped a rosemary martini (Junipero gin, Canton ginger liqueur and fresh rosemary and lime, $9) and worked through “The Hamburger” ($11, plus $2 each for bacon and cheese) and a haystack of thin-cut fries that stayed crisp till the end, Robin couldn’t face down dessert. I, however, after a Mua Manhattan ($9) and the lamb tagine ($16), which was more filling than it looked on its bed of fluffy couscous, wouldn’t be deterred from the adult float ($7), a brilliant if weird-sounding sudsy coup of flavor.
For our second dinner we tried different cocktails: The pepper basil caipirinha ($10) was bright and spicy but disappeared too fast from its ice-loaded tumbler, so I moved on to a nice glass of Tempranillo ($8) from the sizeable, annotated wine list (nearly two dozen beers are available, as well); the strawberry ginger lemonade (Hangar One Buddha’s Hand vodka, ginger purée and fresh strawberry and lemon, $10) was so good that Robin had two, the second, however, being quite a bit sweeter than the first.
We shared four small plates: delicious, crispy tofu (eight pieces in a pool of chili sauce with black beans and scallions, $5); a vibrant endive salad ($7) tossed with julienne fennel, persimmons and radicchio and sliced almonds; the acclaimed “mac and cheese” ($6), a dish of small shell pasta, cheddar and butternut squash that was more understated than its reputation suggests; and braised lamb cheeks ($9) that were less tender than the tagine and were served cooler than room temperature, which prompted the novice server, after consulting the kitchen, to comp the dessert. That turned out to be doubly appropriate as the overly burned sugar crust on the pumpkin crème brûlée ($7) almost overwhelmed the comforting seasonal spice of the custard.
Such minor inconsistencies in execution and service confirm that Mua is a work in progress. But its creative vibe offers a quirky splash of color to Oakland’s diversifying dining palette and an edgy alternative nightspot in the emergent Uptown scene.
MUA. California-Asian-Mediterranean fusion, small plates. 2442-A Webster St., (510) 238-1100, www.muaoakland.com. Serves dinner 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Thu. and Sat. and 5 p.m.–12 a.m. Fri.–Sat.; the bar closes at 12 a.m. Mon.-Thu. and Sat. and 2 a.m. Sat.-Sun.Credit Cards accepted, Full Bar, Reservations accepted, Wheelchair accessible, $11-$17 per person