Roger Porter Visits Momofuku Ko In New York City

My contributions to this website have so far been reviews of local restaurants, and I assume this will continue to be my main interest. But during a recent trip to New York, largely to eat and to expand my gastronomical horizons (at the cost of expanding my waistline as well), I thought it might be amusing to bring back some news of an astonishing place or two. In the case of one rather amazing experience, I decided additionally to attempt to make readers feel less disconcerted by what many decry about the reservation process–or rather the policy of no-reservations–of so many Portland restaurants.

The New York restaurant that made for a witches’ brew of frustration, astonishment, and transcendent hedonism is a tiny spot called Momofuku Ko (the name means “child of a lucky peach” in Japanese). The chef, David Chang, is Korean-American, but the food is such a mélange of unexpected tastes, mysterious combinations, and out-of-the galaxy arrangements that culinary nationalism is the last thing on anyone’s mind there. In New York food circles Chang is more deified than the Dalai Lama—and most foodies I know would rather genuflect at Chang’s stove and taste Chang’s saffron than greet the holy man in saffron-colored robes. Chang, a three-time James Beard winner, has been interviewed by Charlie Rose and about two hundred other glossy mag journalists.

But first, let me talk about those reservations. Momofuku will take them only one week in advance. There are a mere 24 available slots per night, and it’s legendary that once the lines open, within seconds—that’s right, seconds–the week is gone. This necessitates a degree of patience, tenacity, and perseverance that makes Middle East negotiations seem like duck soup. The restaurant has no phone, so reservations must be made online. First you log on and open an account. Then you summon forbearance and indefatigability in equal measure, for snaring a place at Momofuku makes getting into the French Laundry (lines for that Mecca open six months ahead of time) look like admission to Safeway. In fact it’s easier to get accepted to Harvard than to Momofuku. Since the reservation lines open precisely at 10:00 a.m. New York time, and you are eligible to try only if you’ve opened an account, everything must be planned with the precision of a space shot. If this aggravation discourages you, that might just be the point: it’s part of the restaurant’s self-generating myth. But it’s also a sign of egalitarianism, for VIPS are no more able to pierce the gates than any nimble-fingered techie with the cash.

So picture this: I am sitting at my computer in Portland, and it’s 6:57 on a Wednesday morning. I know I’ll be in New York in a week. I have thought through my strategy, and my trigger finger is ready and twitching. Little beads of perspiration are popping on my brow, as my computer clock turns to 6:59, at which moment I am not yet allowed access to the Momofuku website. Then, BINGO, it’s 7:00, and I log on. On the screen the permissible times appear, and I instantly jump on the available “7:30,” lit in glowing green, as if pouncing on the number of a lottery ticket I’ve known in advance is the winner. But no less instantly “7:30” turns a heart stopping red, followed by a message: “Another party just procured that time slot.” A nano-second has separated me from edible bliss. Tormented with anxiety, I hesitate for an instant, but hit “9:30” and, mirabile dictu, I’ve got it!

I subsequently learn that Obama himself could not necessarily snag a seat—I’ve beaten the Prez, and as if getting the slot were itself a kind of amuse bouche, I taste the exquisite victory.

A week later my partner and I arrive at Momofuku, expecting an elegance befitting a place that has so far seemed the Fort Knox of restaurants. But there is no sign in front, the neighborhood is dingy if not derelict (First Avenue and 10th Street), the host is in jeans, like any Willamette Valley dude, and several diners are no less casual, one even in a tee-shirt. It’s a shockingly simple space that could probably fit into the belly of a submarine: 12 backless seats at a counter, no printed menus, no waiters, no decorations on the walls (one of which is plywood). The cooks, a scant two feet from you, make the dishes, plate, and hand your food to you.  As we’ll soon learn, no one talks to his or her neighbors; unlike Portland communal tables which at least encourage socializing, everyone at Momofuku acts like a saint admitted to the Divine Presence, and appears completely focused on the food, the diners next to them as irrelevant as the coat hooks on the far wall.

Oh yes, if you do not show, your credit card is charged $300 per couple.

Dinner is a two-and-a-half hour, 15 course affair: the menu prix fixe (a relative bargain at $125), and the menu fixe as well. You eat exactly what’s put in front of you or don’t eat what’s put in front of you; you have no choice other than to Accept or Reject—the latter an unthinkable option. You are either a prisoner in a system of imperial authority or a fortunate soul, the recipient of blessings blestowed on you by intently concentrating but loose-limbed, garrulous server-chefs.

It would be tedious to write about each of the 15 items, which began with great simplicity and strictly measured quantities raging from a bite (a single scallop in parsnip oil and gelatinized parsnip purée) to a couple (braised tongue salad with pickled rhubarb and fennel infusion served on a porcelain spoon), to complex hearty items (a slow roasted lamb rib accompanied by vinegared kohlrabi terrine, pickled mustard seeds, a braised leek in whose hollow rested Greek yogurt and chives, and other tart, acidic elements).

Let me describe two favorites. First is a sous vide soft-cooked egg that’s been smoked, backed with soubise (puréed onions), tiny home-made fingerling potato chips, Japanese sweet-potato vinegar, and a mass of hackleback caviar spilling out from the split in the egg and looking like a tongue of black gold. Then a dish that puzzled me before it got to the plate: the cook was grating a slab of something into a bowl, and asked what it was replied “A torchon of foie gras . . . that’s been frozen and salt-cured.” When shaved to resemble soft snow slowly falling, the particularly creamy liver is ice-cold, but when it hits your mouth, erupts like Mt. Vesuvius, an explosive detonation aided by lynches and Riesling gelée, and a bed of candied pine nut brittle.

Along the way we were served raw sashimi-grade fluke with red Sriracha, pepper, myoga (a Japanese ginger), whipped buttermilk, and dots of fermented black bean paste; and a broth made with Gruyere garnished with toasted pearl onions, burnt leaves of thyme, and dabs of brioche. Though Chang naturally tilts to Asian treatments, he always features some pasta dish. That night it was tortellini with crispy sweetbreads, pickled watermelon, sweet chili, saffron, and a ring of lobster mushrooms. (I understand that on another night the kitchen prepared surprising lasagna entwined with snails, porcini, asparagus, ricotta foam, and a cluster of dehydrated broccoli rabe flowers lending a splash of golden tones to the dish.

There’s a feather-light amuse bouche of crackly pork rind seasoned with chili salt, a single oyster marinated in black tea vinegar, and a luscious piece of skate in a pool of almond milk with olives and chestnuts. After 13 dishes, paced with the precision of a military campaign, I welcomed a palate cleanser of onion ice cream (sweeter than you’d imagine), served in a soda made of sparkling onion water. The evening wrapped up with an exquisitely delicate deep-fried apple pie, apple salad, raisin pudding, applesauce, and oatmeal ice cream, all dusted with lavender and a dot or two of burnt apple powder.

The sensual overload echoes the ambrosial hedonism of Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome, mixed with the frenzied omniformity of New York City. Perhaps best of all—right up there with the food—is the treat of watching the high theatrics right in front of you, as ingredients you cannot determine (until the chefs inform you) are blended into dishes you can hardly describe. The kitchen is your stage, and you are both audience and guest. I don’t think I’ll put myself through the reservation ringer again—my luck held once, and I don’t anticipate stretching it again—but if Chang and friends sent me an invitation, that might change things. What made this meal especially memorable is that you eat in a way normally possible in New York only at white-napery highly formal restaurants. At Momofuku you experience the food fit for snobs in a place equally open to slobs. It’s the aristocracy of the stove and the democracy of the stool.

Website: Momofuku Ko

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Guignol says

    “an explosive detonation aided by lynches and Riesling gelée, and a bed of candied pine nut brittle”.

    Aided by “Lynches”,  did he mean Lychee?

  2. hsawtelle says

    You got in on your second click ever?!  I have been through that drill dozens of times and never scored . . .
    To summarize, you are a terrible, terrible dick and I hate you. :)

  3. Dave says

    This place sounds less pretentious than others, since unlike places like Rao’s (which is really not a restaurant but a social club for well connected New Yorkers…I tried multiple times when I live in NYC but could never sniff a reservation…life is too short) it’s really about persistance and not social connections to get a table…it is interesting to read about the type of experience a regular person has at a place like that. My last meal in NYC as a resident was at Lutece, a long awaited celebration for getting a snagging a job (out of town). I had no business spending the money to eat there, but it was spectacular and worth every penny…Andre Soltner came and visited every table, and we were treated like royalty, and not like two kids on a prom date.

  4. Adam says

    “the neighborhood is dingy if not derelict (First Avenue and 10th Street)”   Derelict, I think not. At least not for NYC, maybe compared to Portland.

  5. JDG says

    Based on my one visit to Momofuku Ssam, and descriptions of Ko and Ma Peche to a degree, David Chang does seem to follow an attitude and aesthetic that is more at home in Portland than Manhattan.  I’ve also heard that lunch is even more extravagant than dinner at Ko and possibly easier to get a reservation for?
    As a total non sequitur, I’m still seething that the Franks pulled their plans for a Portland outpost.  What I’d give for an East-Coast Italian spot here that would actually succeed on the east coast…

  6. elwood says

    Nice. I’ve been to Ssam Bar and it was one of the better meals I’ve ever had. I walked in worried (yup, just walk in!) but it held up to the hype. The pork belly rolls were amazing. I think Chang’s genius is not just the food, but the way he’s made things accessible to anyone really interested. While his restaurants aren’t necessarily cheap, they do allow us “nobodies” to wander in, eat and wonder how he did it. I agree with JDG above, the feel is more PDX than NY.

  7. sacman says

    French Laundry reservations can only be made exactly TWO months in advance, not six.  The only exceptions are if you’ve somehow got an “in”, or if you book the entire private dining room.

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