If you asked people which recent restaurant openings have made the biggest impact on the Manhattan dining scene, their lists would likely be limited to places like Per Se, Masa and Hearth. But if you asked me for my list, I would include two lesser known restaurants, who, in spite of their not being temples of fine cuisine, have earned their place on the list because they have redefined the inexpensive dining experience . You ask how Tia Pol, a tapas bar in Chelsea, and Momofuku, an Asian noodle bar in the East Village, could make such an impact? Well that’s an easy one. Both restaurants have found a way to deliver the same market based cuisine you will find at the top restaurants in town. And all for a price that everyday diners can afford. I know you find that hard to believe, but at both restaurants you will find dishes that use the same ingredients they use at places like Daniel and Craft. But for a cost of between $8-$15 a dish. Take a walk over to your local Greek Coffee Shop and see what they give you in that price range. You are likely to find meat or fish that was frozen, and served with vegetables that come from a can. I know that by now you are saying to yourself, this sounds too good to be true. But I assure it it’s not.
Tia Pol started when two friends who attended the University of New Orleans together were looking to open a tapas restaurant. They placed an ad for a chef on the website Craig’s List, and Alex Raij, a veteran of Meigas and the Tasting Room applied for the job. Not only did Alex have a background in Spanish cuisine, she came equiped with her very own Basque chef who conveniently was her husband Edder. Little did they all know that their new partnership would turn into one of Manhattan's most enjoyable dining experiences.
Tia Pol is more bar than restaurant. In fact based on the physical premises alone, I have a difficult time calling Tia Pol a restaurant as there is only one table where you can actually sit in chairs. Otherwise you eat at bar height tables with stools around them, or at the small bar in the front of the restaurant. It’s an environment that is highly conducive to tapas, and one doesn’t really expect much more than small plates. But all of a sudden when while you're not looking, the kitchen starts sending out food that is worthy of a one star restaurant in Spain.
Unlike the restaurants that I usually review, who attempt to deliver the most compelling cuisine in the course of a single visit, it is impossible to convey the joy of Tia Pol by reviewing a single meal. Rather, in order to adequately convey what Alex is able to accomplish in the teeny tiny four-person kitchen that she manages, one needs to understand the breadth of the cuisine you will find there. So after giving it some thought, I decided that the best thing to do was to make a list of everything they have served me over the past year while including a photo of each dish. As you will see it is quite an assortment. And it is even more remarkable given the size of the kitchen and staff. But it goes to show you what talented people can do when they make commitment to quality, and they go out of their way to source fresh ingredients.
Tapas - caracoles Chino (Chinese sea snails); shot glass of veal stock with sherry, mint, thyme and lemon; mashed Fava Beans; deep fried spiced chickpeas; paquetitas (packets of ham, artichokes and manchego with olive oil drizzled atop); tortilla; crab salad; grilled head-on camarones assorted hams blistered Gernika peppers with sea salt; crab Salad
Appetizers - gazpacho; heirloom tomato salad, amberjack with olive oil and peppers; squid in its ink with rice; sauteed foie gras with violet jelly; Basque chowan mushi with shrimp; octupus terrine with chorizo oil and potatoes; carpaccio of oyster mushrooms served warm with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, and then topped with chopped almonds and bits of manchego cheese; steamed ramps with romesco sauce; steamed mackeral with watercress;
Main Courses - suckling pig with sherry and honey; cocido of chick peas with bacon, chorizo and pig’s ear; mock elvers with chorizo in a garlic sauce; shredded squid, pig’s ear and bacon; veal skirt steak with anchovy butter, veal wrapped blood sausage and a bean salad with pickled ramps; tuna with diced potatoes and green bean puree; paella de fideos (noodles) with squid ink, “BLT”, braised smoked pork belly, heirloom tomatoes and lettuce cream
Desserts- fried dates with anise ice cream; flan with orange sauce; dulce de leche cookies with ice cream; vanilla ice cream with cherry tomatoes and dates; lemon foam with figs.
I know it's an amazing assortment. And if you saw the size of the kitchen where Alex and crew work their magic you would be even more amazed. If you closed your eyes, some of these dishes, the chick pea stew, carpaccio of oyster mushrooms, the veal skirt steak and anchovy butter, the tuna with potatoes and the "BLT", will make you feel like you are in Spain. Even some of the simpler dishes like the gazpacho, pureed and strained and then emulsified with olive oil until it becomes the consistancy of a milk shake, or the very tender octopus terrine with chorizo oil, will make you feel as if you are dining in Bilbao and not on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street.
Momofuku is even more casual than Tia Pol. Nothing more than a minimalist lunch counter with an extension that sticks out in the direction of the front door. Other than the dozen or so seats at the extension where people can face each other, everyone sits at the counter facing the chefs, or at a smaller counter facing the back wall of the restaurant. Momofuku bills itself as a noodle bar, but that's really misleading. What you will find there is a market cuisine delivered through an Asian template.
David Chang the chef/owner of Momofuku is a Washington DC area native of Korean descent, a graduate of Trinity University in Hartford, Connecticut, and more importantly, was part of the team of chefs that opened Craft for Tom Collichio. When David first opened Momofuku he thought that his future was riding on big bowls of ramen and kimchi stew. But it didn't take him long to realize that he could play down the role of noodles and he expanded the scope of the cuisine. The one requirement was that there be a connection to Asian cuisine. So while an heirloom tomato salad is not something you might find in the streets of Seoul or Kyoto, you will find it at Momofuku with heirloom cherry tomatoes served over sliced tofu and shiso leaf.
Some people might be inclined to describe the food at Momofuku as Asian Fusion cuisine. While I guess that one could honestly describe it that way, it is important to note that it is much different than what usually passes for fusion. Normally it would mean that the cuisines of Asia and France or the U.S. are "fused" to try and make a singular cuisine. But what they do at Momofuku is different because Asian cuisine has been rearticulated around the market ingredients available to New York restaurants. Putting it simply, no square pegs in round holes by demanding that local ingredients that do not have the same attributes as ingredients sourced in Asia taste authentic. Rather Momofuku is what the cuisine would be like in Korea and Japan if the only ingredients they had access to were American ingredients. Like with Tia Pol, a review of a single meal just won't do the restaurant justice so here is a list of everything I've had at Momofuku along with photos. The menu is broken into what they call "Small Dishes", "Local" and "Noodles and Rice". but I've recatagorized things into appetizers and mains.
Appetizers - assorted pickles; sauteed asparagus with miso butter and a poached egg; fried rice cakes with onions, scallions and red chile pepper sauce; pickled ramps, crispy bacon and a poached egg, garlic and scallions; Roasted Cherry Lane Sweet Corn with miso butter, bacon and roasted onions; Eckerton Hill Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes with Tofu and Shiso Leaf; sauteed pea shoots with garlic;
Mains - Ramen Momofuku; same with poached egg, steak tartar with Japanese pear and quaill egg, Long Island green crab soup, Anson Mills grits with Maine pink shrimp and bacon; steamed pork buns; smoked grilled chicken wings with pickeld chili peppers,
The Ramen Momofuku, filled with three different cuts of Berkshire pork and fresh local vegetables is a masterpiece. I don't know of a better single dish meal in the entire city. The various cuts of pork are amazingly flavorful and have wonderful texture. And the peas have such snap to them. It's a joy to eat and one of the most soulfull bowls of soup I've had. There are other wonderful dishes at Momuku besides the Ramen. In fact one of the problems I have when I go to Momofuku is that I end up eating too much and I feel like I'm going to explode by the time I'm ready to leave.
By being sensitive in the way they express locally available market ingredients, Raij and Chang have created a new standard for casual dining in the city. More importantly for people who are serious about dining, Tia Pol and Momofuku demonstrate that there can be a logical culinary connection between what you eat at the very top places like Per Se and Craft for more than $150 a person, and what you can eat at a casual restaurant for less than $50. Historically, the cheap eats crowd has always rallied around ethnic restaurants in this price category. Let's face it and be truthful about it. As good as many of these restaurants are, they have a ceiling in terms of quality because they use what is in reality, ingredients that aren't any better than supermarket quality. Now we have two chefs who have broken the mold and who have forever changed the definition of what reasonably priced dining can be. Let's hope that chefs who specialize in Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern and other ethnic cuisines will follow in their path. Let's hope that Tia Pol and Momofuku are the beginning of a trend. A