There in a Jif

Musang Is Seattle Met's Restaurant of the Year

Melissa Miranda’s stunning Filipino food is only part of the equation.

By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Amber Fouts November 30, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Seattle Met

A table full of Melissa Miranda's food memories. 

The first time I ate Melissa Miranda’s kare kare, I brought my friend Frank, who grew up eating his mother’s version in the family dinner rotation. More importantly, I brought Frank’s mom.

Back in the simpler times of, uh, February, when acquaintances gathered to share meals without a second thought, we sat near the front window of Musang, the restaurant Miranda had just opened in a converted lavender craftsman on Beacon Hill, and listened to our server describe the chef’s version of that classic Filipino oxtail stew. Frank leaned forward with the same furrowed-brow focus I’ve seen him use to interrogate leatherbound wine lists. “What brand of peanut butter do you use?”

The answer, Jif, pleased him and his mom mightily. The family style dish was decidedly more knife-and-fork than her version, but afterward Frank’s mom whispered, “They made it right.”

Musang's can't-miss kare kare.

The next time I ate Melissa Miranda’s kare kare, I huddled at a table wedged onto the front porch, raincoat zipped to my chin, mask at the ready on my knee. Beyond our tiny square of refuge, sheets of rain pummeled the tiny front garden. This time the kare kare centered on rich short rib rather than oxtail, unctuous in its pool of peanut sauce. That same server, Jesse, darted up and down the front stairs, braving the wet to shepherd plates to the tented patio. The peanut butter was still Jif.

There’s not a restaurant in the city that looks, or operates, the way it did at the start of 2020. And yet Musang navigates two simultaneous tightropes: Embracing radical changes while retaining, gracefully, the values that brought chef Melissa Miranda here in the first place. For these reasons; for that kare kare; for a love letter to Filipino food legible to both neophytes and native speakers: Musang is Seattle Met’s restaurant of the year.

Miranda, now 35, spent her earliest childhood in a house blocks away from her restaurant’s address; Musang is the nickname of her father, who cooked many a family meal. She came up professionally cooking Italian food, in New York and before that in Florence. Still, whenever she was exceptionally happy, or exceptionally homesick, her instinct was to cook the food of her culture. “Growing up, you never think it can be brought to the mainstream.” It took a revelation on Beacon Avenue to convince her otherwise.

One afternoon, back in Seattle and cooking at Cuoco, Miranda drove through her old neighborhood, all but stripped of its Filipino landmarks. Inay’s was closed. Ditto Kusina Filipina.

“It just hit me,” she recalled back in spring. She’d been putting on popups that found commonality between Italian and Filipino flavors, but the city needed straight-up Filipino food.

Miranda writes her menus, at least the dish names, in Tagalog. No paraphrasing. If you aren’t already familiar with terms like tapsilog and kinilaw, the staff’s ready to educate, warmly, each exchange nudging Filipino staples further into dining vernacular. After all, most American menus don’t refer to bruschetta as “grilled bread with toppings.”

Brunchtime tapsilog and sunny afternoons in Musang’s dining room.

Sous-chef Jonnah Ayala is a careful steward of a menu that presents Filipino dishes through Miranda’s particular Northwest lens. The delicate lumpia, lightly stuffed with pork, shrimp, and water chestnuts, are faithful to Miranda’s grandmother’s recipe. Growing up in a region with no fresh tamarind means her sinigang might achieve tartness with granny smith apples. The adobong pusit pancit, the noodle dish topped with squid hand-caught by her dad, delivers an acid aria. Miranda’s chef narrative is impressive, but then again, so are her kitchen chops.

Musang began as a popup while Miranda cooked at Bar del Corso. By the time it graduated to a proper restaurant at the start of 2020, I wasn’t sure how to cut through all the buzz and admiration. How to add something to a conversation that swirled even before her megawatt turn on the Seattle episode of Marcus Samuelsson’s No Passport Required. Covid sure has a way of making your old worries obsolete. But in the crucible of coronavirus, Miranda’s belief in building a community and sustaining its culture assumed an even bolder relief.

Melissa Miranda paused for some R&D before she launched a to-go menu.

Working in kitchens, she says, “I’ve seen the hierarchies; I’ve seen the brigades.” But college shifts as a hostess, a server, a bartender, also forged her sense of what food can accomplish. “I got to see that aspect of fostering relationships and being exposed to people you wouldn’t be otherwise.”

It’s hard to find a more intentional chef. After the statewide restaurant shutdown, she held off on takeout until she could test a menu that could travel without becoming a tepid mess. She and a group of like-minded local chefs organized a community kitchen collective, taking donations and flexing their creative muscles to offer a hot meal to anyone who needed it, no questions asked. Upon reopening, she instituted a four-day workweek to encourage work-life balance. She offered her dining room as a popup space for a fledgling neighborhood plant business; partnered with a friend for regular Filipino cooking classes for kids.

Musang is a destination, full stop, for its food. For garlic rice and roasted chicken adobo, and a dinuguan that manages to be both elegant and true to its pork blood stew identity. But it also shows us the possibility of what restaurants can become. Right now we need that just as much as comfort food.

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