Monday, May 11, 2009

Momofuku Ko

If you’re not a New Yorker or a hardcore foodie you may not have heard of the hottest restaurant in New York City. Momofuku Ko, the latest James Beard award winner for Best New Restaurant in the United States and the most coveted reservation to be had in the city. Not only because Chef and co-owner David Chang is one of the hottest chefs going right now but also because the restaurant only seats 14 guests. In a metropolitan area of almost 19 million people you can imagine it can be tough to get in.

To understand “Ko” you have to understand it’s truly a chef’s restaurant. Everything is focused on the food and those who make it happen. The 14 seats are at a raised counter that surrounds the cooking line. The line is the typical sized line you’d see in thousands of restaurants. Instead of preparing the food and placing it in the “pass” for the servers to pick up it goes directly to the customer. The cooks prepare, serve and explain each dish. The “servers” clear, pour wine and take care of the bill. Two servers, three cooks, 14 customers. Like I said, it’s a chef’s kitchen. The walls are plywood, no art no fancy finish. . The music is loud and alternative, the cooks control the selection and volume. Again, it’s a chef’s restaurant. It’s almost anti customer. It’s like Chang’s revenge. “His rage against the machine” and the scary New York dining scene. A fucking jungle.

The night I was there I was seated near the chef I assumed to be Chang but to be honest I can’t be sure.(The chef spoken of is Peter Serpico, Co-owner and Chef de Cuisine)I don’t follow the chef scene and am not familiar with most of the “star” chefs. He was Asian and in charge. Whoever it was, his mood was best described as brooding. All the cooks were silent and emotionless. They weren’t quiet because they were in deep thought, christ, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were blaring over the speakers. I think it’s because they simply don’t want to talk to the “fish”. To break the ice I asked Asian dude what kind of yanagi he was using and he replied, “What? Do you mean what brand”? I said “yes”. “I don’t know”. Huh? The tattooed boy in the middle had a western handled Misono sujihiki and the boss is using a traditional Japanese knife used for sushi and he doesn’t know who made it? I don’t know a single cook who owns a yanagi and doesn’t know who made it. I guess he just didn’t want to talk. I didn’t detect a smile the entire time I was there. If you’re going to remove barriers why not take advantage and interact with your customers? Especially if you have the time to do it. There was no “rush” in this restaurant. The pace was slow and easy. Quite frankly too slow and easy. It would drive me crazy. When I noticed the cooks familiarity with the menu I asked how often it changed. “Seasonally”. No wonder they looked board. They’ve been cooking the same menu for weeks at an agonizingly slow pace. If you’re expecting to see sparks and razzle and dazzle in this kitchen forget it. If you thought you’d chat up the cooks forget it. If you didn’t know what to look for the show could be boring. For most I’m sure it is. Some folks I noticed were intently watching the cooks and others could care less. I was watching. Closely.

The Food: (I elected to have each course paired with wine)
I didn’t take notes and there is no printed menu. So my recollections may not be perfect.

Grilled octopus with miso aioli and asparagus. Black pepper biscuit and salted pork rind. (Although they called it cicerones?)
The octopus was grilled perfectly, good flavor and tender. I thought the miso aioli was a bit tame. The black pepper biscuit was killer. No shortage of butter I’m guessing. Moist and flavorful.

Long Island Fluke sashimi style with whipped buttermilk, poppy seeds, chives and white soy sauce.
The fluke was excellent, super fresh but I have to question if anything caught off Long Island is kosher raw? The whipped buttermilk was a match I’m not sure about. I guess it’s a kin to pickled herring in cream sauce. A classic here in the Midwest and probably most likely in the Big Apple as well. Very heavy on the poppy seeds as well. I’m not a fan of poppy seeds.
A nice German white, a Gavertz I think.

Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin), English peas, some kind of seaweed in chilled dashi broth.
Nice flavor in the dashi, not too strong, uni freaks me out a little but was the best I’ve had.

Snail sausage, mounted butter sauce, hand torn Pecorino, chives
This one was right up my alley. Excellent pasta, and I really enjoyed the sausage. He used chicken and pork fat for the base. Nice mild flavor. Probably why they paired it with a sauvignon blanc. I didn’t care for it but I’m not a SB guy.

Lightly smoked soft boiled chicken egg, American Sturgeon caviar, onion soubise, mini potato chips
One of the best dishes of the night, I didn’t detect much smoke in the egg but it was cooked perfectly, the yolk oozed out and was covered with the black caviar. (Which was surprisingly good) The onion soubise just tied everything together. Man, the soubise was good! I watched him make it and mounted it with a shit load of butter. (Not a bad thing in my book) Oh, and the potato chips added the texture, an integral part of the concept. Simply excellent!
A kick ass New Zealand Chardonnay

Lychee gelee (jelly), shredded torchon of foie gras and pine nut brittle.
A sleeper. The pretty bowls couldn’t disguise this unattractive but delicious dish. At first I had my doubts but once you combined the three ingredients it was excellent. The rich buttery foie with the cool sweet jelly and then the crunch and sweet pop from the brittle. Yeah, it was good.
A sweet German, A Riesling I think.

Soft shell crab, fresh heart of palm, celery, lemon juice, Old Bay seasoning.
Nice balance in this dish. I loved the straight forward approach. It hit damn near every taste bud in the mouth. I watched as middle guy thinly sliced the palm heart but unfortunately they prepped the celery ahead of time. It was sliced super thin the length of the stalk. Mandolin my guess. Both were tossed simply with fresh lemon and a lttle Old Bay. Beautiful crisp salad served beneath the crab. My only problem was with the texture of the crab. They sautéed the crab but they use the technique of tilting the pan at a 45 degree and cascading the hot oil over the crab collecting in the bottom of the pan and repeating rapidly. I think it doesn’t get the crab as crisp as a traditional sauté but that might just be me.
An excellent sake

Fried boneless Short ribs, grilled ramps, spring “alum”(?) and veal reduction.
They sous vided the short ribs for 48 hours and then chilled them. At service they take an 8 ounce chunk and throw it into the deep fryer for about four minutes. Then they slice it serve it with the ramps and a funky green sauce (Spring alum?) and nap some veal reduction over the top. Woah! It may have been the best tasting beef I’ve ever had. Incredibly flavorful and tender as hell and still medium rare to medium. Man, it was good.
A very nice Zinfandel.

Cream cheese encased guava sorbet.
I’ll be borrowing this one. They wrapped the excellent sorbet in cream cheese. It was a great look and a nice contrast.
A sweet white

Poppy seed ice cream with lemon curd.
As I said before I’m not a poppy seed fan. I will admit it was interesting paired up with the lemon curd. Again a nice contrast.
A sherry I think.

All in all an excellent dinner. Also a rare chance to see into one of the hottest kitchens in America. I wish the cooks would have been more approachable but I admit I’m a little jealous of the fact that they don’t have to talk if they don’t want to. Kinda like “don’t poke the monkeys in the cage”. I felt the value was good as well. Essentially 10 courses for $100. The wine pairing was $85 and excellent. I love the fact that it’s casual. I also like Chang’s straight forward style. I love the atmosphere and will try and return. If I do I’m going to be poking the monkeys.

There is no doubt that it’s a chef’s restaurant.