Momofuku Ko: Congratulations, I’m Speechless
Momofuku Ko is potentially one of the most hyped restaurants in Manhattan. It is talked about and whispered about; it is revered by foodies and heralded by critics; it holds a niche in the haute dining community that very few other restaurants occupy; it eschews trends and yet defines them; it has an obsessive and obsessed over celebrity chef. Ko by no means skids under the radar, and it almost certainly carries expectations suited to its fame.
Well, I’m hear to tell you, to hell with expectations; this place is so good no wonder they don’t give a damn about what people think. Momofuku Ko offered to me the most singularly rewarding, inventive, and surprising meal of my young life thus far. The food is challenging and modern, incorporating a myriad of traditional and unique techniques, global flavors, and a whole lotta spunk. There were so many finely layered flavors that I am surely going to have difficulty iterating them all here.
The restaurant itself is tiny, about 12 seats in total, and sparse. Diners sit at a ‘chef’s table’ or bar, overlooking the open kitchen. The focus is only on the preparation of and eating of food. The rest of the restaurant is decorated with…plywood. There is no scene, mood-setting decor, or chic ambience to speak of. Yet, all of this is compensated for by the kickass music (jazz, blues, old school rap, rock n’ roll) and absolutely out of this world cuisine.
There is no menu. Your dining experience is completely at the mercy of the chefs and sous-chefs behind the counter. Thus, if you’re picky, this is not the place for you. However, if you’re adventurous and keep an open mind, you will experience something worth remembering. The dinner consists of around 10 courses (it’s easy to lose track…), all relatively small, all seasonal, and all encompassing of flavors and textures.
Our dinner started with a trio: seared diver scallop in uni sauce, a black pepper and mirin biscuit with homemade pork rind, and a bit of poached lobster tail with black garlic sauce. Two things came out of this starter: 1) I officially adore everything uni, and 2) homemade pork rinds should become a household staple immediately. Bueno! The following two fish courses exemplified perfectly the diversity and range of fish preparations. First, the mellow fluke sashimi in buttermilk and poppy seeds melted like creamy ice cream in your mouth – satisfying and delicate. Second, the thumb-sized slices of spanish mackeral with rice cakes popped with wasabi-like vigor in your mouth, offering a constrasting experience to the previous silky fluke dish.
Following was a much-praised dish of smoked soft-boiled egg with caramelized onions, deep-fried potato strings, and Hackelback caviar. This is not a dish for the faint-hearted – dripping in salt and fat, it defined ‘rich’ and ‘decadent’ proudly. The next two courses were musings on ‘pasta’ – first, an ‘Asian’ pasta of homemade daichon tortellinis stuffed with oxtail and caramelized onion in an oxtail consomme; second, hand-torn pasta with cubes of chicken and snail sausage, crispy chicken skin, and black truffle shavings. Similarly to the fish course, one dish was mellow, the other bold. The daichon tortellinis were delicate and refreshing with a consomme worthy of lapping up after. The hand-torn pasta was fit for a king and yes, again, decadent.
Another fish dish came next, a skate filet crusted with almonds in an almond foam – classic, this decidedly un-fishy filet married crunchy and smooth textures together and tasted so rich that you could pretend the skate was some sort of game meat. Next up was the most unusual and experimental dish of the evening, showcasing a shredded torchon of foie gras over gelatin and peanut brittle. While not something I would order off a menu (if you ever found it on one…), this funky blend of salty, sweet, earthy, and fatty flavors kept you guessing straight through the last bite. The last savory dish of the evening was the honey-glazed duck breast (with skin on) that would make meat-lover flip over the moon. The thick half-breast of tender pink meat was sweet and savory, crispy, just gamey enough, juicy, and just totally perfect.
Lastly, dessert, of which we got to enjoy two courses. First, a spiced white wine sorbet with asian pear offered a refreshing (if not a bit boozy) palate cleanser. Second, the salty sweet send-off of pretzel pannacotta convinced me that not only do I officially worship any sort of salted sweet treat but I also love rootbeer ice cream.
The entire meal represented an arc of playful and well-planned thinking about food – David Chang and his army of absurdly cool and collected chefs covered huge swathes of ground with flavors, textures, colors, and aromas. With the focus on the food and watching interactively the preparation by chefs and sous-chefs, the plywood doesn’t matter nor do the backless stools and bare-bones set-up. Momofuku Ko pioneers ‘food-centric’ dining, throwing ‘atmosphere’ and ‘vibe’ to hell. And honestly, when the food’s that good, who cares?
Note: nabbing a reservation borders on ludicrous with a first-come first-serve online reservation system certainly intended to madden users. The site opens at 10am – start refreshing then and you may have a miniscule chance of getting a seating time! Just be persistent – eventually, you’ll pull through.