The celebrity chef won't slip up.
Thu May 22 2008
Photograph: Talia Simhi
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Most of the early buzz surrounding Momofuku Ko centered on a maligned reservations system, which mandates bookings six days in advance, at precisely 10am, only via momofuku.com. (They’re all gone within ten seconds, unless a cancellation occurs midday.) Personally, I love it. David Chang is New York’s hottest chef. Ko serves only dinner. And there are just 12 seats, all at the bar, where the chefs, Chang included, double as waitstaff. So Ko deals with these whacked-out supply-and-demand curves democratically, compared with, say, Rao’s, where getting in is 100 percent whom you know. At Ko, there are no beautiful people, just lucky ones.
What’s even more evolutionary about Ko is how harmonious Chang’s concoctions have become. It’s like watching Andy Warhol turn into Rembrandt. Chang’s two other Momofukus (Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar) wow with power: strong, unique, head-turning flavors that utilize pork the way other chefs use butter. There’s no set menu at Ko—everyone pays $85 to eat whatever the chefs choose, eight or so courses—but dish after dish dazzles with class, innovation and balance.
This doesn’t mean that Ko, while less porcine-dependent than its brothers, fails to produce heavyweight flavor bombs. Raw fluke, in a coating of tangy, mellow buttermilk and poppy-seed sauce, has a surprise kick—sriracha chili sauce—that turns this otherwise pleasantly milky dish into a tongue-singeing delicacy. For his deep-fried short ribs, Chang tames the typically tough cut by cooking it sous vide, before using hot oil to cauterize the flesh, then painting the whole thing in a plummy short-rib jus reduction. It’s almost like eating liquid beef. In another triumph, Chang pairs Berkshire pork belly and a Wellfleet oyster, bathing both with a kimchi consommé that absorbs the belly’s richness and the oyster’s brine, resulting in a near-perfect, salty elegance.
Chang raises the level of his cuisine to the point where the $85 price tag is a bargain, despite the backless wooden stools that could leave you numb once the meal is through. And because you have no idea what you’ll be eating until it’s placed in front of you—maybe not until it’s in your mouth, given the harried chefs’ often mumbling descriptions—each course is an adventure. A lasagna is constructed layer upon layer in front of you, from noodle, to fragrant snails, to noodle again, to porcini mushrooms, asparagus and yellow broccoli rabe flowers, all held to together by a mild blanket of ricotta foam, shot out of a whipped-cream can, that I would gladly have inhaled by the gallon.
That quirky harmony is accentuated by the beverage program. Like the food, the wine list is offbeat, reasonably priced and first-rate; the pairings, which start at $50 a person, are the way to go. Whimsy rules. For a charred, caper-brined trout, bacon puree fluidly dovetailing with the pickled and smoke flavors, I was presented with Allagash white beer. For a signature frozen foie gras torchon—brilliantly shaved like Italian ice over lychee puree and pine-nut brittle—rather than a sweet wine, I was served a dessert sake.
Not everything works perfectly: A seasonally appropriate Day-Glo green pea soup, with crawfish and soggy daikon-wrapped mushrooms, mixed as uncomfortably as three strangers forced to be roommates. A nearly forgettable dish was the egg custard, drizzled in argan oil and topped with chopped asparagus, which proved too mild, despite a dollop of caviar.
But these are quibbles. Perhaps the most telling sign of Chang’s high-end arrival: a proper embrace of dessert (Noodle Bar serves only frozen custard), albeit with a ten-year-old’s worldview. A panna cotta made from milk that’s been mingling with cornflakes is nothing short of genius in concept. What could have been a gimmick becomes great thanks to the addition of cornflake brittle for textural contrast, and an avocado smear for balance. The other dessert, a cinnamon-dusted fried apple pie, is haute McDonald’s, pure and simple.
As for being there: The entire meal runs a bit over two hours, and the pace is unrelenting, with something new to eat every 15 minutes. Rock music blares from an iPod-driven sound system, and I witnessed the hyperactively perfectionist Chang chastise one chef for how she wrung out a washcloth. It’s great theater, and the show will constantly change: Ko promises to continually alter the menu, one dish at a time, with nothing sacred and anything game. I came in doubting Chang could match the hype—I left plotting how I can win the Ko lottery again.