Walking into the relocated, larger Momofuku Noodle Bar on a recent weeknight felt very familiar: standard Momofuku decor (floor-to-ceiling windows, light-wood paneling, long dining bar), standard Momofuku crowds (a dozen-plus scenesters queued for dinner). Then came something of a miracle: My party of two was seated at the counter immediately. Turns out the people in line were taking advantage of a revolutionary innovation—tables—as foreign to the old Noodle Bar as reservations or a dress code.
And so the Momofuku juggernaut grows up a bit more. David Chang has gone from East Village rebel to awards-circuit veteran, piling up accolades from Bon Appétit, GQ, the James Beard Society, Food & Wine and just about anyone who has ever eaten a pork bun. A year after the opening of a spin-off, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, the relaunch of the flagship Noodle Bar, a block north of the original, presents another step in the Momofuku family’s evolution (look for Momofuku Ko in the coming months).
The results are consistent with what we’ve seen so far: original. Fun. At times, outstanding. The new Noodle Bar, at 55 seats, doubles the capacity, yet the quality hasn’t suffered. In fact, many of the new dishes raise the bar. While the image of the restaurant’s fare as poor man’s gourmet is a myth—doing Momofuku right runs $60 a person, easy—I can’t help but marvel at how electric the dining experience remains. In my assessment, it boils down to three factors:
Rock & roll attitude: It’s not just the soundtrack or the minimalist Noodle’s Bar’s sole piece of art (a giant photograph of the Band, circa 1967) that says “rock.” Chang, now 30, borrowed money from his dad to start Noodle Bar four years ago at an age when even wunderkinds are still apprenticing as line cooks. He has enough confidence to risk failure—the price of admission for possible greatness.
Thus, Momofuku is one of the rare places where you can actually experience truly original flavor sensations without resorting to molecular gastronomy. One new Noodle Bar menu item, a cold smoked duck breast, comes slathered in swollen quince-flavored mustard seeds that pop in your mouth like fish roe, and a cinnamon-spiked sour cream that reminded me of tiramisu. Bizarre, and addictive.
The high-low balance: Noodle Bar made its bones taking the economic savior of college students everywhere—ramen noodles—and making them hot, duding up most of the bowls with sexy yet earthy ingredients like poached eggs and pickled pear, the latter turning the pork broth of the beef brisket nguyen into a spicy fruit tea. Similarly, the new Noodle Bar has added a single dessert—gimmicky yet appealing soft-serve ice cream in two flavors, eggnog and a rich gingersnap, among the best I’ve ever sampled of this everykid treat.
More interesting to me, however, is the way he takes offal and other trendy yet risky ingredients many eaters shy away from—veal sweetbreads, fried and served with chili sauce; “spicy honeycomb tripe;” a pressed veal’s head terrine—and makes them as friendly as a cheeseburger. In Noodle Bar’s previous incarnation, Chang offered chilled beef tongue; thin slices of that dish now serve as a garnish for a new grilled version, featuring a thick, mild slab the consistency of a pot roast, punched up with a mustard sauce and charred onions.
Porkocracy: Traveling in the deep South, I once encountered this saying at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: if it’s not fried, it’s not food. Chang seems to feel that way about pork, infusing it into most of the items he serves. Pork stock is the standard, in noodle broths and as a base for sauces. The meat finds its way into dishes, both in classic pairings (with stewed Manila clams and in a parsnip puree, riffs on clams casino and split-pea soup, respectively) and less obvious ones (hunks of Benton Farms bacon sautéed in a kimchi syrup with smoky Satur Farms brussels sprouts). The pork bun, meanwhile, an oozing fatty belly lavished with hoisin sauce, scallions and crisp pickle slices, remains one of the best snacks in the city.
Lasting excellence requires proven staying power and a larger footprint. Momofuku Ko, a 14-seat restaurant in the old Noodle Bar space, promises still more twists—a set menu, and no servers. Another risk, and another chance to see whether Chang is a streaking comet, or a New York dining mainstay. Chang has been reorganizing the lieutenants among his properties as he evolves from rebel chef to large-scale restaurateur. Based on the new Noodle Bar, he has a good chance to expand his dominion without compromising his rep.