For a long time I have been trying to write about the expectations that diners have when they enter a restaurant. But each time I started a post on the subject, I ended up with a paragraph or two of intellectual gobbledy gook and I ultimately scrapped the piece. But David Chang's new restaurant, Momofuku Ko, has given me the unique opportunity to broach the subject in the context of a review of a restaurant. Well okay, it's not exactly a review, as the restaurant isn't officially open and I was invited to attend a friends and family meal. But though Chang is still fine tuning the restaurant's cuisine, there was enough meat on the plate to launch this discussion.
Chang hardly needs an introduction. First of all the guy's picture is everywhere. Even my non-foodie friends know who he is. For example, last year I took Chang to a Met game (after which we hit a few taco carts on Roosevelt Avenue checking to see which one serves the best carnitas) and a few games later the guy who has the seats in front of me at Shea turns around and says, "hey, was that your chef pal in New York Magazine this week?" And this year when he asked me if I had any extra seats for opening day, I told him "I'm bringing the chef" and he didn't even ask me who I was talking about.
Of course no one deserves the fame, attention, and prosperity (even though he is always claiming poverty to me) more than Chang. But as good as the food is, the thing that really catapults the Momofuku brand into being on the tip of every foodie's tongue is the way Chang has priced his cuisine. For a mere $33 at Noodle Bar, one can have a plate of Berkshire Pork Belly with daikon, mustard seed and apple, with a side dish of greenmarket Brussel sprouts, homemade kimchee puree and Benton's bacon. The same meal could easily cost up to twice as much at another restaurant while only being half as delicious.
One would think that given that he has such significant success at two different price points (Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar,) both of which he could likely replicate at a few dozen locations around the country with great success, Chang would be sitting back and raking in the dough. But restless soul that he is, he has embarked on a new, more upscale venture called Momofuku Ko (which is located in the original noodle bar space) and where he intends to serve a tasting menu priced at $85 to twenty four lucky diners per night. Well last night, Mrs P and I were two of the lucky ones.
We began with some chicharrons that were sprinkled with togarashi. I have to say that one thing that came out of this molecular gastronomy business is a slew of delicious pre-meal snacks. Well you can add this to the list and like with some of the other good ones I have had at places like El Bulli or Mini-Bar. In fact I wouldn't mind being able to buy a few bags of this stuff in the local bodega. Then raw fluke with whipped buttermilk, poppy seed and soy. Very good if a bit Jean George-ish stylistically because of what seemed like a heavy acidic component in the dish. Pork belly with Beau Soleil oysters in a kimchee consome is a dish that David had been experimenting with at Ssam Bar. This version was tasty but the kimchee flavor wasn't pronounced enough and he needs to make sure that he ramps it up in the future. Then a dish of the night - soft boiled hen egg with smoked hackelback caviar, fingerling chips, onion soubise, sweet purple vin and an herb salad. The egg could have been slightly less cooked but this was a great example of how modern (slow cooked egg and fingerling chips) can meet a classic dish on its own terms. Simply scrumptious.
Mrs. P and I agreed that the next dish, roasted scallops, Manilla Clams, iwa nori, sea beans, pickled fennel, black trumpet puree and bacon dashi just didn't work. We each took a spoonful of the concoction to try and figure it out. It seemed that the black trumpet mushroom puree was mixed into the dashi and it made it muddy tasting. Chang saw we weren't happy and asked us about it and we told him what we thought the problem was. No problem. Chang is a man who gets things quickly and within minutes a new version of the dish was sitting in front of us. This time the puree and dashi were plated seperately which was an improvement. I'll be interested to see how this dish develops. The next dish, shaved foie gras with lychees and pine nut brittle is Chang genius at its best. I have to admit there is a bit of a backstory to this dish. One day my phone rings and its Chang calling to ask me if I ever saw foie gras snow at a restaurant. Well not only hadn't I ever seen it before, I didn't even know what he was talking about. So he launched into this diatribe about freezing a torchon of foie and then microplaning it blah, blah, blah. Well this is what I believe is going to be the final version of the dish and it is really fabulous. The pine nut brittle, crunchy and salty, is what makes the dish IMO. In fact it was so good that I asked for seconds and they were happy to comply. Then short rib with "Mama Chang's marinade (David's mother's marinade for Jin Kalbi), cooked at 70 degrees centigrade for 48 hours, then deep fried and served with daikon, pickled mustard seed and carrots. Also very good with the meat being soft yet springy, and also moist while being crispy on the exterior. There was miso soup and rice and a number of desserts but I won't get into them at this time.
So here comes the geeky part. As opposed to the context I have always used to assess a meal at Noodle Bar or Ssam Bar, the check here (actually we didn't pay but they go through the motions anyway so you can leave the service staff a tip,) was $270, which means that the restaurant has to be comparable in terms of quality and ingenuity to some of the top places in the city. Well that's a tall order and in that context, Chang, despite a few truly interesting and delicious dishes, is still in the process of ironing the kinks out. Not that I don't think he will succeed because the guy is a magnet for success, but the difference in expectations when someone is going to pay $85 for a meal, rather than $50, is a issue that Chang has never had to grapple with before. I'm rooting for him but I think this is a much tougher challenge than he was up against at his first two restaurants.