When it comes to chefs in the Triangle, I’ve always enjoyed what comes out of the kitchens from Chef Mike Lee. Since his days as owner-chef of Sono in Raleigh to competition cooking events, I’ve watched him grow in the Triangle as he’s built his group of M Restaurants in Durham to much acclaim. And now the Bull City has M restaurant #4, M Pocha (short for pojangmacha – street food). Sitting on a corner of Five Points, M Pocha will be bringing some foodie magic in the form of Asian small plates! I was lucky enough to get an invite to M Pocha’s friends and family preview dinner before they soft-opened. Here’s what to expect!
Heading on over to M Pocha, it’s a bit inconspicuous from the outside with shaded, plate glass windows (it’s a sunny spot) and a slightly, narrow triangular feel to the space. If you had been in the old Cupcake Bar space before, you won’t recognize it anymore. Inside, M Pocha has a minimalist, darker decor focused on metals and woods. A bit different then the other M Restaurants which usually have featured a lot of exposed brick. The seating is also different here with bar seating at the front and side along with one large communal table down the middle. M Pocha’s space is probably best suited for 2 to 4 people along with solo diners given the seating setup. M Pocha offers up a short selection of beers, wines and cocktails to get your meal started!
Chef Mike is in back, busily working the kitchen while about sixteen of us sat at the communal table, eagerly awaiting what was to come. The meal opens up with a spicy kimchi soup filled with napa cabbage, smoky sausage and tender fall-off-the-bone pork ribs. The soup has got some great depth and texture, it reminds me of a classic Chinese soup and is gobbled up by the table. While I think kimchi can get really strong and pungent, the presentation of that fermented flavor is balanced well in this soup!
The table moves on to nasi goreng, an Indonesian fried rice served up with some fried shrimp. The fried rice is moist and tasty with a bit of soy sauce, garlic and more. It’s a very comforting dish for me, something that mom might put on the table. Served up with some nicely pan-friend brussels sprouts makes for a great starter for the meal.
The highlight for me is next, the seared short-rib served up yakitori-style (barbeque) on a ceramic grill. Thick, succulent pieces of short-rib showing off great char and beefy chew. Mike is serving them boneless which makes for easier eating. A follow-up dish of spicy pork belly served with greens, pickled veggies and steamed buns offers up a great mix of textures and colors for the palate. A fun take on the traditional bao with some acid and greens to brighten the dish up.
And finally the closing small plate, perfectly fried pork dumplings (gyoza)! The skin on these dumplings were thicker but still tender and as you can see by the picture, very nicely pan-fried to a deep brown. The crunchy bottoms make for a nice contrast to the soft tops of the dumplings, dee-licious!
Over the course of the dinner, Chef Mike comes out several times explaining the origins and ingredients of each dish, along with his career and path as a chef. Like many chefs, he started out formally trained to do one thing and pivoted when he discovered his love of the culinary arts and food. I’ve always appreciated his menus and cuisine from Sono to M Sushi, M Kokko and more. His dishes stay true to the authenticity of Asian cuisine while taking some light liberties with ingredients and preparation. I wouldn’t call it Asian fusion, more like Asian uplifted, similar to Brewery Bhavana. But always delicious and balanced for flavor!
And I think he will have some fun with the broader menu options here at M Pocha, offering up small plates of his favorite Asian cuisines across the region. So here’s to more and better at M Pocha and from Chef Mike. We’ll know more of what to expect from the restaurant in upcoming months as they get into a groove after their soft-opening, cheers!