The Asian-fusion menu is mostly well-executed, but the Center City spot doesn't stand out.
Muntin is the kind of restaurant you want to root for: The simple decor is pleasant enough, the food is generally successful and the staff adds enough of a personal touch to make the otherwise quiet space a bit warmer.
But I’m nervous for it. In these days of collective economic discontent, a new spot has to really stand out from the crowd to lure a critical mass of first-timers and crucial repeat customers. And during two recent visits—a lunch and a dinner—Muntin stood distressingly quiet.
The problem doesn’t rest with the execution of the food, which is brightened up by enough unexpected highlights to give Muntin a fighting chance in the neighborhood.
It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted a better scallion pancake. And while it could have absorbed a bit less oil and projected a more pronounced scallion flavor, Muntin’s version was a textural home run, comprised of countless whisper-thin layers of phyllo-like dough collapsing in and snapping brightly with every bite.
Thai-style crispy red snapper, the ultimate grown-up fish stick, was not only a highlight of my Muntin experience, but a fantastic embodiment of the kind of food that Philadelphians seem to gravitate toward these days: Thoroughly comforting in its familiarity, with just enough of a twist to make it interesting. The dish was nothing more than tempura-battered and crisp-fried fish filets glazed with a subtly sweet-spicy chili sauce, but each aspect of the preparation succeeded both on its own—sweet fish, nutty crust, balanced sauce—and in the overall context.
Korean-style grilled squid also worked well, with the added benefit of a presentation that, as far as I can tell, is unique in Philadelphia right now. The entire cephalopod was sliced crosswise into a dozen or so sections, but presented as a whole creature, from the delta-wedge of its top all the way down to the messy tangle of its tentacles. The grilling lent a lovely bass note, excellent in opposition to the fruity, tingling chili glaze. And while the decision to grill it whole resulted in some uneven cooking—the head and tentacles were chewier than the beefy-tender body slices, but not enough to detract from the dish—the entire preparation was as successful as it was intriguing.
Among a reasonably broad selection of sushi, sashimi and maki, the Love Roll stood out, a well-considered, tightly constructed combination that featured moist shrimp tempura at the center, a layer of nori and rice and then, draped over the top, meltingly tender slices of avocado the same thickness as peppercorn-dusted tuna. Again, this was a textural standout, especially with the peppercorn, a component we don’t see much of on sushi or maki menus in Philly.
As far as the other sushi standards, they were generally well-prepared, but lacked the startling sense of freshness that you find at a restaurant like Zama. Eel, for example, benefited from a beautiful earthy note beneath the sweetness of its standard-issue barbecue sauce. But the fluke was bland and a bit on the dry side, and the mackerel arrived smoked, which, while tasty, caused some initial concern, as no one had informed us that the restaurant had been unable to source the raw fish and had replaced it with a smoked one.
The only item that really left me cold was a lunch special of chicken in a Malaysian red curry sauce. It was comprised of a mound of uninspired rice, rubbery slices of breast-meat chicken, sad cubes of crispy tofu and a scattering of red bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant and snap peas in a sauce that fell far short of the depth and complexity the name implied. There was a requisite touch of heat, sure, and a nod in the general direction of red curry’s perfume, but little beneath—no richness to the flavors, no body to the sauce, no heart in the dish. This was one Asian food reference too many.
And that, I think, is what’s really keeping the crowds away from an overall solid newcomer: Pan-Asian restaurants have had a notably tough year in this city, and pinning Muntin’s food down is tricky. Our most successful restaurants, in fact, seem to be homing in on specific culinary traditions and mining them for all kinds of unexpected discoveries. Han Dynasty is a great example, as is Amis.
With a bit more focus and consistency, Muntin may well lift the curse from its Spruce Street location. It’s not quite there yet, but I’m pulling for it.
1326 Spruce St. 215.546.0180.
Cuisine: Pan-Asian, with a focus on Japan.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm; Sun., noon-10pm.
Prices: $2-$19 (more for sushi combo platters, which top out at $50).
Atmosphere: Classic sushi house: Lots of wood and straight lines with an overall sense of calm.
Service: Attentive and well-informed.
Food: Generally solid, though with a menu this big and varied, there are a few weak spots.