Woman at the bar: "How do you pronounce the name of this place?"
Bartender: "It's Moo-Wha."
This time she doesn't try repeating it. "Oh. What's it mean?"
Bespectacled and English major-y, the bartender tilts his head. "It's Korean. It means, 'You are here, but in a totally existential way.' Like, 'You are here. Moo-Wha!' Get it?"
Clearly, she doesn't. "Yeah, okay — cool."
Five months after opening, Mua is here in Oakland's Uptown, and in a totally existential way. The 6,500-square-foot loft sprawls in an L-shape through most of the old Rim and Wheel building, a cavernous former garage. Is it a bar? A restaurant? A chillax zone for art happenings? After three visits, I'm not exactly sure. But this most existential of all O Town nightspots does rock at least one empirical truth: A restaurant with this fluid an identity is doomed to be inconsistent, if not downright crappy. When it comes to the food, Mua might as well mean mess.
I think the problem is that Mua is a very personal project — way too personal, perhaps. Last year, when owner Hisuk Dong showed me the still-raw space, he described a vision every inch as grand as Rim and Wheel's 24-foot ceilings. Dong hoped Mua would spark a free-form scene for artists, where whatever went down would go down: Warhol's Factory, only with crab cakes.
"A lot of undergrounds are being closed out," said Dong, who with wife Sanju Dong owns Soizic, the Cali-French bistro in Jack London Square. "Uptown. West Oakland. The artist community is being squeezed out. I'll bring everyone together again."
Dong favors a ponytail and fragile-looking eyeglasses. He's a painter himself — you can see his brushes in a corner of the dining room. He paints during the day, when dinner-only Mua is closed. The owner's work is mounted high, or leaned up against the back wall: neo-expressionist horse heads with a nod to the septuagenarian Picasso, in swirls of graffiti. Some on old doors.
You could spend an evening exploring here: Up the stairs to the loft, contained within a metal railing of Dong's design. It's pretty much a loosely defined hangout space, available for banquets and, says manager Kevin Ho, newly open — with table service — on Fridays and Saturdays. There's a funky miscellany of furniture, scroll-y Asian tables, mismatched chairs, the odd sculpture, with a good view to the main dining area. The back stairs skirt a kind of semi-open wine and booze storage cave. A DJ spins four or five nights a week. When the place is crowded and buzzing, like on an Art Murmur Friday, Mua can feel like an especially fierce party.
You see the challenge for any chef, right? In a setting with so much ambient personality, how does the cooking command attention? You figure Dong could have gone for a strong choice, a chef with a quirky vision and strong opinions, someone like Sophina Uong of Berkeley's now-dark Maritime East. My guess is that a chef like that would have clashed endlessly with Dong, but maybe that tension wouldn't have been entirely bad for the food. And don't forget Sanju Dong, who oversees Soizic's kitchen but helps direct Mua's menu, too (a Mua staff member referred to Dong as "boss lady," a nickname that didn't seem wholly affectionate).
It's a formula for micromanaging, under which all but a chef with the heaviest cojones would fail to hoist a coherent message. If my hunch is true, it explains why Mua's roster of dishes is about as cluttered as a multipanel canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
That's as far as I'll go to let chef John Mardikian off the hook. The rest is like, dude — WTF?
Take the hamburger, which had all the elements for success: good beef, decent focaccia-like bun, quality cheese options. But the burger that arrived for me, at my bar perch one night, was an aggregate of fumbled details. The meat? Way too salty. Combined with the extreme char on one side, it had me gulping my Rosemary Martini (made with gin and ginger liqueur) in a vain play to wash away the salt and acridity. And the bun was cold — hadn't been warmed or toasted at all, which, given such a dense bun, made it seem totally stale.
I will say that the accompanying fries (available on their own, too) were really good. Cut from skin-on russets — smaller ones, evidently, since the fries ended up kind of charmingly squat and tiny — they were crisp and potatoey.
Beyond the burger and fries, the menu of small and smallish large plates is a collection of dishes with widely differing styles. Cruelty-free (i.e., vegan) French green lentil soup was a sort of watery Indian dal, with soft hunks of butternut squash and carrots in a thin purée of what tasted like yellow split peas. A few whole lentils (they looked too large to be the true French lentilles de Puy) lurked in the bowl. It was neither hearty nor vivid enough to be satisfying.
Mac & cheese suffered from a similar reticence. The De Cecco shells were a bit overcooked for my taste, and the orange sauce — it contained white cheddar and butternut squash purée — was mild and vaguely sweet. It tasted like something from the kids' menu. I had high hopes for the mung bean-kimchi pancake. I figured the Dongs' heritage could somehow make the dish shine, but it came off more Carrows than Korean: soft and fluffy, studded with the odd mung sprout and strand of kimchi. At least the dipping sauce (sweet and spicy, salty with fermented black beans) kept it from veering off totally into the realm of the short stack.
A boneless short rib with hoisin, another Korean-inspired dish, was soft but kind of unpleasantly sticky, with a husky beef-fat flavor. Lamb cheeks, three lumps of soft, long-stewed meat napped with a thickish red wine sauce, came off all right. But their garnish, a sprinkle of carrot and parsnip in micro-dice, were a little gesture from fine dining, a bit out of place here.
When the kitchen does pull it off, it's with straightforward dishes that, given Mua's oversized scale, nevertheless feel underwhelming. Essentially greaseless fried chicken (a boneless hunk of breast plus drumstick) rocked tasty, KFC-like breading, next to a huge wedge of cake-sweet cornbread.
According to a friend's Korean-speaking mother, "mua" means "no ego" in Korean. Maybe the name is ironic. Mua itself — the space, the bar, the vibe — is quirky and interesting, all symptoms of Hisuk Dong's ego. All the food needs is a juicy dose of a chef's ego to match.