When it comes to Momofuku, people fall into one of two camps: they either know exactly what you’re talking about or they look at you like, “You called me a momo-what?!” For those that know Momofuku and I say I went to Momofuku Ko last night, I probably just earned the culinary street cred equivalent of growing up in the ghetto Bronx. Ko is part of chef David Chang’s growing culinary empire and often regarded as the hardest reservation to get in America.
Here is some background: Chang is only 32-years-old and already named Food and Wine‘s Best New Chef, GQ‘s Chef of the year, Bon Appetit‘s Chef of the Year, and won three James Beard Awards. Despite this praise, Chang is a rather divisive person in the food world. He arguably, and admittedly, isn’t the best technical chef in world, America or even New York. He is, however, inventive, determined and one of the most fascinating people I’ve read about lately. As Anthony Bourdain says in his new book Medium Raw, “[He is] a man who, in a ridiculously brief period of time, changed the landscape of dining, created a new kind of model for high-end eateries, tapped once, twice, three times and coming into a zeitgeist whose parameters people are still struggling to identify (and put in a bottle, if possible) […] Describing David Chang as a chef does both him and the word ‘chef’ a disservice. David Chang is…something else.”
To get a reservation at this 12-seat restaurant, one must create an online account with Ko, where reservations are only released for the week ahead. At 10 a.m. every morning the reservations for the same day next week are released and you compete against thousands of other dreamers vying for the same reservation or hunting for a cancelled spot in the upcoming week (e.g. Today the reservations for next Thursday were released). No preferential treatment is given to celebrities or other chefs, and apparently Chang’s own parents waited a year to get into Ko! Hence the hype, the anticipation and the glory of finally procuring a reservation.
Though the reservation process seems a bit pretentious, the restaurant itself is not. In fact, the outside looks more like a Russian mobster late-night hangout with a caged edifice, not one of the most glorified restaurants in Manhattan. The service is equally unassuming for a two-star Michelin eatery. The host is welcoming, but not chatty. There are no “Hi my name is…” introductions. We are seated at the bar which faces the open kitchen thereby allowing the chefs to serve us directly with straightforward explanations of the course. They answer our questions dutifully, but offer little elaboration—the food is to speak for itself. Oh, and Led Zeppelin’s Fool in the Rain (my favorite song of theirs) plays in the background. Fate.
About the food, you say! Ko is a set tasting menu of 10-12 courses for dinner and is something of gastronomic genius that changes daily. As Bourdain writes, “The creative process by which the final dishes at Chang restaurants are arrived at is an absolutely fascinating stream of daily e-mails between chefs and cooks. Preceded and followed by many, many testings and tastings. Five-word rockets detailing a sudden flash of inspiration, thousand-word missives detailing an experience, a flavor, a possibility—an experiment that might lead to something great, continuing back and forth.”
So it begins. For starters (course 0): Roll made with pork fat and crispy pork rind. Followed by…
- Fried plantain with chili and strawberry + Gelled heirloom tomato in mussel broth
- Long Island Fluke with poppy-seed butter sauce
- Beef carpaccio with fennel and cream drizzle
- Ham consommé
- Soft boiled egg with caviar, sautéed onion and homemade fingerling potato chips
- Orecchiette pasta with Louisiana crawfish, chicken sausage and ragu sauce
- Grilled Trout with summer bean salad
- Pineapple, lychee, fois gras, Riesling jelly with shaved peanut brittle
- Slow roasted lamb rib
- Apricot sorbet with pie crust crumble and bourbon drizzle
- Panna cotta and root-beer ice cream over crushed pretzels with mustard gummies
- White chocolate buttermilk with mint powder
Aww. Disbelief. Bliss. Clearly not for the vegan crowd or weak stomach. After each course I thought the food could not possibly get better, or more interesting, and was pleasantly surprised with each dish. There was no favorite, though the orecchiette, fois gras, lamb and panna cotta are new benchmarks in my food memory bank. Dish 5’s ingredients seemed the most basic, yet when combined they created a flavor combustion I hadn’t quite anticipated and left me wanting to eat eggs at every meal. The fois gras (8) looked like a mound of sawdust but was delectably rich and something from a dream. When I got to 11 I wanted to crawl behind the bar and give the chef a bear hug—at LAST, the gods finally achieved the proper equilibrium between sweet and savory in a single bite! The creamy panna cotta and youthful root-beer ice cream were perfectly counter-balanced by the pretzel crumbs and clever mustard gummy!
This was, without hesitation, the best meal I have ever had. It was well worth my money and partaking in the hype, as it is a meal that I will use to judge all others going forward. Yes, the bar stools are not the most comfortable, the attitude a bit indifferent and the crowd a tad quiet— but you are there for the food after all. And yes, 12 courses is alotta food. I started singing Bob Seger’s Roll Me Away as we walked home. Roll, roll me away, won’t you roll me away tonight?
Note: I realize I’ve been writing about food a lot lately. In the interest of my wallet and desire to swim at the beach in the next few weeks, I’ll back off the food posts for now.