Dinner at Momofuku Ko

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So much has been written about Momofuku Ko that it's difficult to offer much that hasn't been said already. In the mere six weeks since it opened to the public, the Ko dining experience has been documented in dozens of amateur blog posts, hundreds of photos, a growing number of professional reviews and a near constant flurry of posts on Eater and Grub Street (see below for the blow by blow).

With any luck you'll find this brief outline of my meal from two weeks ago only minimally snore-inducing. For what its worth, here's how it all went down...

* Celine, our host/server, welcomed us warmly and seemed genuinely pleased to have us as guests. Much to our surprise a special dietary request was accommodated with zero fuss.

* A quick scan around the room revealed that little of the decor had changed since Noodle Bar moved down the street. 

On to the food...1) Chicharron sprinkled with togarashi, aka pork rind and Japanese spice mix = love. House made English muffin with pork fat = shrug (the only one of the night). 

* Notes on my menu, with highlights in bold: 2) a raw scallop with poppy seeds, chives & creamy / spicy sauce; 3) pork belly and oyster over kimchee consommé, had a smoky, beef jerky-like aroma; 4) the much discussed soft-cooked egg with caviar, sweet onion, vinegar and potato chips; 5) the even more widely discussed shaved foie gras with lichee gelee; 6) soft shell crab with ramps (from Virginia, this was 2 weeks ago after all) and Old Bay; 7) Deep fried beef short ribs with turnip and pickled carrots; 8) kiwi sorbet; 9) deep fried apple pie with sour cream ice cream; 10) espresso.

* Notes on my companion's menu: 2) blackfish instead of scallop, same treatment as above; 2) Georgia pea soup with morels and crawfish; 3) Scrambled egg with snails (this was surprisingly good!) and land caviar; 4) house-made pasta with feta and rabbit fennel sausage; 5) a roasted scallop with pork, lemon and vinegar; 6) soft shell crab (see above); 7) short ribs (see above); 8) pineapple sorbet; 9) panna cotta praline with avocado puree.

* David, who we know from covering Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar, was there and looking the most relaxed we've seen him in a long time. Chances are he'll be there every night until Bruni's review comes out so if you want to see the man in action now's your time.

* The real stars of the show, as acknowledged more than once by David, is the team of cooks led by Peter Serpico.

* The decor, a sort of low budget Sushi Yasuda, works well because it places the focus squarely on the food. This is clean, honest food that reflects the creativity and ingenuity of the cooks behind the counter and it rightfully deserves the spotlight. I typically favor bar dining so the counter seating was cool with me and the stools proved surprisingly comfortable.

* The tunes are great. Maybe it's because I'm in my mid-30's, but I felt like someone asked a bunch of my former roomates to get together and record a mixed tape for my listening pleasure. Sabbath, Modest Mouse, Pavement and The Flaming Lips were just a few of the highlights.

* Spend a few minutes checking out the bathroom. If you know of this place called Tsukiji, you'll leave with a smirk. Inspiration is evident from the fine selection of books: Michel Bras and Roger Vergé among others.

* Not only is the $85 cost of the tasting menu an unparalleled bargain in NYC, but the $50 (the less expensive of two options) wine paring is an equal score. I was served a number of enjoyable and interesting selections, including a lovely Rosé Prosecco to start, a tasty Scholum Project and a vintage Champagne of Beers with the soft shell crab course. Only one pairing, a sake, disappointed for lack of character. 

* Sure the online reservation system is a total hassle for diners, but it was a marketing coup for Chang and Company. By the way, it's not going to get any easier to score a reservation. Ever. Best to try on a weekend when  the Ko media storm is likely experiencing a momentary lull and the cubicled masses are sleeping off hangovers.

* Did Ko blow my mind? As much as any place in NYC has done in the past year. Was it worth the money? Absolutely. Am I going back? As soon as I can. Will it be as good as the first time? Probably not, but it never really is, is it?

* As for my dining companion, she had this to say: "Not since TFL."

For the uninitiated, a brief history of Ko:

5/9/07: Chang reveals plans for Ko to Eater. " At Momofuku Ko, we'll showcase everybody's cooking, to make it work as a collaborative kitchen."
3/4/08: Ko opens for previews and Gourmet's Ruth Reich's offers up a First Taste. "And now there is the richest, silkiest short rib you have ever tasted. The meat has been braised for 48 hours and then briefly deep-fried. Served with a Rioja, this is one of the most intense pieces of meat you've ever put in your mouth."
3/5: A "shocked" Ed Levine declares, "He may not want to admit it, but Ko is haute Chang without the normal haute trappings. Fine dining, whatever that is, will never be the same again."
3/12: Ko opens to the public.
3/17: Gothamist ends a post about a stressed out Chang with: "plans for a Vegas restaurant are reportedly in the works."
3/25: Blogger reviews start to roll in.
3/27: Early photos from The Wandering Eater.
4/8: NY Mag's Adam Platt awards Four to Ko after just one visit. "Should we subtract a star for the absurd reservation system? But then we'd have to add it right back because the price is so good. And then there's the food, which Chang, already a multi-star chef, takes to another level."
4/11: Bruni files his first report leading up to his impending review. "In the context of ambitious restaurants around town and on the scale of restaurant affectedness, Ko didn't strike me as especially precious or self-satisfied, in terms of the flavor of the experience once you're through the door."
4/25: Blogger Food in Mouth reveals new dishes.
4/30: Cheryl Tan of the Wall Street Journal files the 2nd professional review to be based on a single visit. She dedicates a mere single paragraph to the food, describing her "carefully thought-out, eight-course meal" as a relative bargain and instead focuses the bulk of her review on the frustrating reservation process, the fixed format of the menu ("the roster of its few regular dishes has largely remained the same."), the widespread online cataloging of Ko's dishes ("Getting through the meal can feel a little like dating the guy who's already gone out with the entire cheerleading squad." Hmm.), sex-specific dish presentation ("it was peculiar to note that the woman, almost always, seemed to be given the lighter dish.") and the dour manner of the chefs ("they exhibited little of the friendliness that many sushi chefs in similar arrangements have."). In the end, it's her expectations that cause her the most disappointment: "the root of what's lacking in the Ko dining experience: By making the reservation such a prize to get, you want to feel, at the end of the evening, that you've truly won something". I know that restaurant reviewing is relatively new for the Journal, but surely they can do better than this. The only real gem in the article is the footnote description of how resy scalpers can beat the reservation system.

Some quick Momofuku Ko stats:

  • Days Momofuku Ko has been open: 49
  • Number of blog posts found via technorati that include the words "momofuku ko": 224 or 4.6 per day
  • Google results for "momofuku ko": 40,090
  • Photos posted on Flickr with the tag 'momofukuko': 235
  • Most popular "Want to Try" restaurant on Savory New York? Momofuku Ko

Parting thought:

Ko officially has 12 seats but Ruth Reichl pointed out that there were 14 seats during previews. When we were there we noticed enough space at the end of the bar to easily accommodate two additional seats. Perhaps this is where Joel Robuchon will sit in September.
 

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