Soon the largest of large economic trends will affect even the way we eat out. Research recently published by Thomas Piketty demonstrates a near inevitable tendency toward the accumulation of wealth among a tiny super-elite (see “Extreme inequality: historical quirk or long-term reality?” by Zack Anchors, in last week’s issue). The rest of us will rent a few rooms on their property by the month, and sell our labor to them by the hour. Already the “middle class” is losing its ability to buy homes, maintain careers, carry out transcendent projects, create stable families, or afford fancy dinners.
It might be okay. Obamacare will keep us healthy in our diminished state until our Social Security kicks in (fingers crossed!). And a good life is pretty cheap. Anyone with a smartphone can download a lifetime of worldly entertainment for free or thereabouts (as long as you can afford that monthly fee). But you can’t eat data, and the diminished Americans of the future will still crave the pleasure of a restaurant meal. The Mi Sen Noodle Bar on Congress offers a premonition of the future of dining out: a satisfying meal that is globally inspired, up on the latest trends, and about the price of a good smartphone app.
At Mi Sen bowls of soup are $5 — $6 if you want wontons or the duck. The soup is not just priced like an app, the menu works like one too, complete with graphics that would look at home on a high-def screen. You follow a little flow chart to choose from seven broths, seven noodles, and seven proteins (not unlike Pom’s noodle place nearby). Like our high-tech gadgets, the soups are sort of pan-Asian, with nods toward American taste. And like our gadgets, these soups are pretty remarkable given the price.
Asian noodle soup has unrivaled capacity to efficiently deliver richness, complexity of flavor, variety of texture, and satisfying infusions of umami. At Mi Sen they deliver it in deep white bowls of a dignified size. The best was the num sai — a chicken broth soup, which we ordered with flat rice noodles. The broth had a light, bright quality, and the fat little wontons were not too heavy. Ground chicken clung to the tender noodles, while green beans, sprouts, and crispy wonton added some crunch. The num daeng featured chicken broth sweetened with palm sugar. It was pleasant, but got too sweet by the bottom of the bowl. A green curry soup had plenty of vegetal heat in its thin milky broth. It was a spicy cousin to the tangy and creamy tom kha.
Mi Sen also offers brothless noodle dishes. A “dry noodle” is actually damp with a light sauce that combines sweetness and a sort of sour tang with notes of lime and fish sauce. Drunken noodles were fat and substantial, with a bite reminiscent of Chinese five-spice and crunchy vegetables. The ginger noodles infused the same ingredients with a subtler spice and just a whisper of gingery sharpness. The appetizers were less satisfying than the soups and noodles — shumai were a bit bland and spongy, the radish cakes bland and mushy, and the taro roll all greasy starch.