If you’re a foodie, then you’re probably familiar with the name David Chang.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last decade or so, David Chang is the genius behind the Momofuku Restaurant Group. While the name Momofuku is synonymous with high end restaurants; Chef Chang’s beginnings were a little more humble.
After growing a little disillusioned with the New York fine dining scene, Chang opened up a little restaurant in the East Village called the Momofuku Noodle Bar; and the rest, as they say is history.
Of course, it’s never as easy as that; but there is no doubt that David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants are some of the best in the world; his reach even touching the Australian shores, where his restaurant Momofuku Seibo is one of the best and most sought after restaurants in the country.
On my last and only visit to New York; the girl and I managed to brave the long queues to visit the very cool Momofuku Noodle Bar, and loved it (see post here). So for my second NYC visit, I’d made it a mission to get along to Chef Chang’s flagship New York restaurant, Momofuku Ko, currently ranked as the 58th best restaurant on the #Worlds50Best Restaurant list.
Originally opened in 2008 as a tiny little 12 seat diner with a reputation as a notoriously difficult if not ‘impossible to book’, the version of Ko that I visited in 2017 was quite different from the tiny East Village space that helped build the legendary chef’s reputation. My visit was to a very polished space near the Bowery in a modern building next to an art gallery; in fact a space that really could have doubled as an art gallery when the kitchen grills were not fired up…
I’d arrived for my 5:30pm sitting (yep, that’s right…. so early) and the place was already filling up quite nicely. Momofuku Ko is a tasting menu only restaurant, which suited me just fine; I find that you get inside the mind of a chef when you get taken on their version of a culinary journey.
With no menu to look over and just a quick explanation of the evening from my waiter, the meal commenced almost immediately with the arrival the first flurry of dishes. We kicked off with a couple of pomme soufflé paired with a lobster paloise presented on a board that had once been the segment of a tree. The light puffs of potato had surprising heft to them when I picked one up; I’ll never know how they got the creme fraiche inside that little puff, but the starchy potato and tart cream worked beautifully together. Most surprising was the fresh and super tasty lobster at the centre of the paloise; the crunchy texture of the casing balancing well when topped with a contrasting sweet basil puree.
A surprisingly large chicken oyster covered in a golden crunchy coating, with a dusting of honey and dijon mustard was next. That delicate little part of the chicken that can be found just behind the thigh; cooked wonderfully, it was moist and succulent and full flavoured. Served with a shooter of white kimchi, the icy treat provided a gentle salty hit; which hit the palate with a nice twang and somehow enhanced the bite from the mustard.
My meal was gathering pace; a large flat plate was presented with a trio of components; they looked disconnected on the plate but the components fit together in complete harmony. Fluke was the star, the flaky fish coated in bonji; a sweet sauce similar to soy but made with fermented hearty beans. However, a pickled mustard leaf and little pile of salt added an astringency and extra salty hit to the medium firm flesh of the fish. Individually the components were a little overpowering, but together, total harmony was achieved!
I didn’t know what to make of my next dish; a creamy mass of chickpea (hozon) puree sat next to a mass of intertwined Hokkaido Uni, both bathed in a bed of olive oil. There was a lemon pepper hit with the dish, and when combined with the salty fresh sea urchin and the rather mild chickpea puree, left me a little in awe. I’ve never been a fan of chickpea, but the manner in which the (usually) vegan staple was presented left me a lot to think about. Mainly, who would think to combine the legume with sea urchin in the first place!
One of the signature dishes of Momofuku Ko is the Ko Egg with Caviar. The spectacular dish saw a soft boiled egg, already split open, with what looked like an explosion of white sturgeon caviar spilling into the bowl. Accompanying the egg was a red vinaigrette and tiny little potato crisps added for texture. It was incredible, there was a gentle smokiness coming from the egg, which also provided a sweet velvety yolk to combine with the punchy sharpness of the vinaigrette to assault the palate. The caviar was salty, as you’d expect and was just the right foil for the vinaigrette and the delightfully yummy egg.
We were about mid meal, which meant that it was bread time; a trend that I’ve noticed with many tasting menu only restaurants; bread forming part of the tasting menu and not seen as an aside. There was a six week old hand churned butter, that had a strong almost cheese like texture and flavour and was a soft room temperature. It made it especially easy to spread on the soft bread with the crunchy crust.
Showing a deft touch and embracing simplicity, the Beef au Polvre was presented on another large flat plate; aged for around five weeks on the premises, the incredibly thin beef had been heated quickly on the grill then placed on a green peppercorn sauce. That was it, beef and peppercorn; the former being incredibly tender, seasoned perfectly and was sweet on the palate. I loved the heat from the peppercorn sauce; it provided the perfect contrast to the sweet beef… I even appreciated the kick at the back of my throat that lingered for some time.
Like tiny amoeba swimming in a petri dish, the next dish of Chilled Razor Clams with basil and pineapple was mesmerising to watch. Basil seeds interspersed with basil oil sitting atop a broth that was quite sweet not only looked interesting, but tasted interesting too. I found chunks of the slightly chewy razor clams underneath the surface, the whole dish providing a refreshing contradiction from the simplicity of the previous beef dish. The was much going on, all working in perfect harmony, all tasting simply incredible to me.
There was much theatre and fanfare with the next dish. First, I was presented with a huge piece of Skate that had been poached in buttermilk and coconut milk, before being coated in a golden breaded crust. I watched as the flesh of the sweet fish was extracted and placed on top of a sauce caramel with mushrooms; then covered in a buttery potato emulsion. The overall impact was the fanciest fish and chips that I’d ever eaten! The succulent skate was superb, but when combined with that emulsion, just about took my breath away.
Ensuring no waste, that golden breaded crust that had been peeled away from the fish was quickly presented back to me; this time wrapped around some fresh vegetables. It was a nice touch and while it didn’t blow me away; it was an interesting way of reducing waste.
The highlight of the meal was next, and boy was it sensational. The biggest breast of duck I’ve ever seen was presented to me on a cast iron plate; the Southern California Muscovy duck had been marinated in red vermouth then barbecued over an open flame before being served. Interestingly, the duck had been pre sliced, then placed back on the bone; the idea that you’d eat as much as you could with an accompanying plate of broccoli rabe. I absolutely adored this dish, the duck fat was rendered perfectly, the flesh a medium rare and the flavour a combination of earthy sweetness and a caramelised BBQ hit.
Even though I loved the duck, it was such a generous serving size that I unfortunately couldn’t eat the lot. Right now, sitting in Hong Kong reflecting on that fact, I almost want to cry!
It was palate cleanser time; and I was given an interesting duo of Japanese soft cheesecake with a maple glaze and a rhubarb and olive oil granita. Starting with the cheesecake, I couldn’t believe how soft and light the sweet treat was; it wasn’t overly sweet, but somehow the sweetness was enhanced when I devoured the rhubarb granita!
You will notice an issue with my next photo! My first dessert was a lychee, pine nut and resiling jelly tart, which had been coated with shaved frozen foie gras. The tartlet was actually made from some foie gras fat, and was a sugary and salty hit. The resiling jelly was strangely muted in flavour, and the dessert was a little bit too salty overall for my liking. However, I did quickly destroy the dish before realising that I’d not taken a photo yet, hence a tart sized hole in the shaved foie gras 🙂
Thankfully, there were more desserts to come; the next being a wild rice ice cream with kombu; puffed rice and lime zest were plastered over the earthy flavoured ice cream that was slightly more savoury than sweet. It was a dessert that was quite unusual in flavour and one that I had to reflect on as I ate, not being able to make up my mind if I loved it or just tolerated it. However, by the time I’d finished the bowl off, I was firmly in the ‘loved it’ category.
There was no doubt about the final dessert though; it was like Ko had been building through the sweet component of the meal to this final point! Sakura ice cream with a cherry sauce and topped with dehydrated sakura made up the dessert, which was simply delicious. I’ve fallen in love with sakura, having visited Japan recently, so the flavour was well known to me; the sweet dessert was just the perfect way to complete what had been a delightful tasting menu.
One of the things I loved about the set up of Momofuku Ko was the layout; the bulk of the seating was bar style, with the kitchen as the centre piece of the restaurant. It meant that I could watch the team of chefs in action all night; and when you’re a solo diner, this is a great way to while away the two to three hours that a typical degustation takes to complete. It was like watching a well oiled machine in action.
While Momofuku Ko is a David Chang restaurant, day to day operations are left to Executive Chef Sean Gray, who’s been at the helm of Ko since 2014. His calm and steady approach in the kitchen was mesmerising to watch. Of course taking a heap of photos in such an open kitchen environment garners interest, so Sean came over for a chat at the end of my meal; it’s always illuminating chatting to a chef at the top of their game…
As you’d expect from a restaurant with Two Michelin Stars and a ranking in the top 100 restaurants in the world, service was faultless. Both front of house and kitchen were adept and expert in their game and it was clear to see; or more the point, not to see… Faultless service such as the Ko experience simply fades into the background.
I left Ko with a full belly and a happy heart; I was back in New York, one of my favourite culinary destinations in the world; I’d started my first day in the US with a meal to remember, and what was better, I still had a number of kick ass restaurants left to visit. Only time would tell if any would top the magical experience that was Momofuku Ko.