We went home to Illinois last month to visit Arne’s parents. When we were planning the trip, they surprised and delighted me by suggesting that we go out to a new restaurant, which Arne described to me as “fancy Korean-French.” The name did not get passed along, so I was in suspense as to what exactly we’d be treated to – but I was really excited.
And, to be honest, mildly annoyed. The discussion caused me to look up Korean restaurants in Champaign on Zomato, and I got 10 hits. That’s more than double the number of Korean restaurants (including Chinese places with a few Korean dishes on the menu) that I know of in Albuquerque. It’s no fair how C-U got so much more urban and cool since we moved away!
MIGA is in downtown Champaign, which was run-down and sad when we lived there – despite numerous revitalization efforts – but is now abuzz with popular restaurants and bars, including some that are quite upscale. MIGA is certainly one of those, with clean lines and soaring ceilings. The chairs are minimalist but still cushioned and comfortable, and the service is smooth, attentive, and knowledgeable.
Our server introduced the menu, commenting that the entree section was where the kitchen excelled. We ordered two appetizers – mandu (Korean dumplings) and the “Zen-style ceviche.” The mandu were pretty unexceptional, made “upscale” by their arrangement on a piece of slate with drizzles of balsamic reduction instead of the traditional (and, honestly, tastier) bowl of dipping sauce – though the radish salad served along side was really tasty. The “ceviche” was nicer, especially the huge scallop at the center of the plate, but still not thrilling. I was beginning to get concerned.
And then the entrees appeared.
Arne’s father and I had both opted for the Angus Galbi Ribeye Steak, and it was a beauty, perfectly seared on the outside and gorgeously rare on the inside (as I had requested), topped with a beautiful chopped kimchi (dubbed “kimchi salsa” on the menu), garlic chips, and microgreens. Alongside was a cute little black wok with a generous serving of kimchi-bacon pilaf.
The steak was succulent, sweet and savory with the distinctive flavor of galbi (often spelled “kalbi”), Korean marinated short ribs. The topping was dynamic and spicy, and the rice was moist and flavorful. The whole thing was magnificent to look at and totally delicious. Even though the serving was huge, I couldn’t stop until I’d finished the whole thing.
Arne’s mom got the “buttery whitefish,” highly touted by our server. It lived up to the recommendation. The fish was as buttery as promised. The plate was finished with spicy bok choy, seaweed salad, and jewel-like fish roe in ebony black and ruby red.
The fish was one of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, but something about it kept nagging at me for days afterward. I’d heard something about a white fish with a lesser-known name… what was it? I checked MIGA’s website and found that the fish was escolar. It rang a bell. A quick Google search led me to the information that had been niggling at the back of my brain: Escolar is notorious. Often labeled “butterfish” – or, in sushi restaurants, “super-white tuna” – and known in Hawaii as “Waloo,” escolar has one disturbing trait. The fish cannot digest certain wax esters, similar to mineral oil, found in its diet. So it stores them in its flesh. These oily esters give escolar its scrumptious, buttery flavor and texture, but not without cost. Sometimes, after eating escolar, diners experience (forgive me) excretions of orange oil from the anus, sometimes explosively and sometimes sneakily. Though the fish is non-toxic, I’ve read that it is banned in Japan and Italy and must be sold with a warning label in several other countries. Most people won’t have a problem when eating escolar in reasonable (less than six-ounce) portions, but results vary and can be highly messy and embarrassing, as described with horror and comedy in the comments on this hyperbolically titled web article. As far as I know, no one in our party was affected – but be warned!
Arne ordered the duck, pictured at top, and was delighted. This dish isn’t listed on the web menu, so I can’t tell you just how it was described, but it was smoked duck breast cooked to a beautiful rosy-rare, with delicious Brussels sprouts and a tangled tower of onions and herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I was thrilled to trade bites of my fantastic ribeye for tastes of it.
As we ate, I kept seeing boards go by with what looked like sandwiches sliced in four pieces – but that didn’t match anything described on the menu. Then it clicked: That enormous thing was the cha shu bun. I had nixed that as an appetizer, thinking $4 each for steamed buns was excessive, but now that I know the size of the things I wish we had ordered one!
We moved on to dessert, ordering two each of both the offerings, ice-cream mochi and apple pie with ice cream and miso butterscotch. My order was the pie, and it was pleasing: a tiny whole pie with a sesame brittle as well as the previously mentioned accompaniments. The butterscotch was delicious, not shying away from the savory flavor of miso. The mochi was better than I expected, but I was glad I’d ordered the pie.
MIGA is a pricey restaurant, but the entrees are worth it. I’d skip the appetizers, except maybe for the cha shu bun that I hope I get a chance to try one of these days. The salads also looked worthwhile, served in enormous wooden bowls. But, as our server advised, the entrees are where this place really shines. I’d happily go back anytime – especially if my in-laws are picking up the tab! (Thanks, guys! Love you!)