M Pche may be the first David Chang restaurant well suited for entertaining even the most noise-averse—watered down, like a Las Vegas outpost, for mass appeal. The midtown venture, this renegade chef’s first foray outside his East Village comfort zone, features the same anarchic aesthetic as its downtown precursors—seriously diluted, it seems, by corporate cash—with less raucous music, more sedate crowds and a dining room quiet by 10pm on most nights.
Despite its swank midtown setting in the Chambers Hotel, the subterranean venue—utilitarian wood tables and chairs under amply lit sheets of peach canvas—has virtually no personality. And it’s not just the decor that’s verging on bland.
The restaurant, Momofuku minus the edge, is a showcase for a protg’s talents, featuring the Franco-Vietnamese cooking of former Ssm Bar head chef Tien Ho. Casual and muted, the dishes are often pleasant but rarely exciting, neither as challenging nor as groundbreaking as so much of the food served at Chang’s other restaurants.
Steamed mussels in beer are flat and muddy, doused too heavily in bitter herbs and crab paste. Tiered fruits de mer platters (Balthazar by way of Saigon) are more pristine but hardly exotic—crab, oysters and shrimp served with run-of-the-mill lemony mayo and mignonette subtly infused with Thai basil.
Ho, who immigrated to Texas from Vietnam as a child, takes fewer liberties than Chang does with his ancestral cuisine (Korean in his case). Sweet sticky pork ribs in lemongrass caramel are certainly delicious, but not much of a departure from what you might find in a Vietnamese dive. The piquant mix of ground pork, hot chilies and fish sauce tossed with crispy rice noodles in another dish is viscerally comforting but also entirely classic.
Ho delivers more dazzle when he follows in Chang’s carnivorous footsteps, celebrating meat on a grand scale. An enormous Bev Eggleston pork chop, simply basted in butter, abandons the Southeast Asian theme entirely. The chop, an astonishing, fatty product—gold-standard swine—is roasted to a gorgeous shade of pale pink, finished in an orange jam glaze and sliced off the bone like a porterhouse. But Ho’s expert hand with large-format meat—the chop serves three or four—achieves its ultimate expression in the restaurant’s new book-ahead “Beef Seven Ways” feast.
Getting a reservation for this riff on a traditional Vietnamese banquet, available only to two tables per night, requires a brisk hand at the keyboard (log on to momofuku.com) and at least five hungry friends. Like the bo ssm at Ssm Bar and the Noodle Bar’s fried chicken dinners, this is a serious—and seriously daunting—feast. It’s also the single best reason to dine at M Pche.
Seven cuts from seven different boutique beef purveyors are parsed out in three generous courses. Brined Creekstone Farms beef tongue in a bracing salad of basil and spinach gives way to a glorious mineral-tang rib eye, sliced off the bone, from Four Story Hill Farm, served alongside plump, spicy bias-cut sausage. The sausage and steak, and the monster shank that comes next, arrive with big baskets of lettuce for filling with East Asian condiments—fried garlic and shallots, fresh herbs, pickled chilies and carrots—and dipping in puddles of fish sauce. If only the rest of the menu were as engaging as this very limited big-ticket fleshfest.
Overall, Chang and his cohorts have missed a great opportunity to meet the challenge of adapting Momofuku for the north-of--14th Street crowd, raising the sophistication quotient while building, perhaps, on their great work at Ko. Instead, they’ve gone so far in the other direction, they don’t even bother to offer dessert (just a small selection of cheeses). For something sweet, you’ll have to visit the bakery counter on the ground floor—gooey “compost” cookies and salted pistachio soft-serve that may already be familiar highlights. This second outpost of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar was designed presumably to give office drones their sugar fix. While that seems like a smart idea, the midtown Momofuku mostly does not.
Drink this: The reasonable wine list, compiled by sommelier Christina Turley, features some delicious offbeat bottles, including an unusually juicy Moroccan syrah, from Frenchman Alain Graillot ($40). The bespoke cocktails include potent classics, like a fresh ginger dark and stormy and a silky Manhattan (each $14).
Eat this: Beef Seven Ways, pork ribs, rice noodles with pork, Bev Eggleston pork chop
Sit here: The caf tables upstairs around the bar are the best spots for a quick, simple lunch. The most comfortable seats downstairs—the ones where you won’t be staring at walls—are at the communal table in the center of the dining room.
Conversation piece: Thomas Schlesser of Design Bureaux conceived the restaurant and Milk Bar with sustainability in mind, with plastic cabinets and wood tables both made from recycled materials.
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