If you didn’t know better, you could easily walk right past this building on the corner of 1st and 10th in New York’s East Village, writing it off as no more than another derelict ghost of a shop. However, upon closer inspection, you might notice a solitary golden peach effortlessly perched in the centre of the door way, shiny and very orange, unlike the actual door to which it is attached.
It’s only this solitary peach that gives away the secrets that lie behind this unkempt fascade. This one peach, golden and rotund and presumably sweet and juicy, a single indication that somewhere behind this door lies the genius that is David Chang’s Momofuku Ko.
Opened in March 2008, Ko is the third in Chang’s apparent plan for world domination. Having already garnered the adulation of fans from his Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar, Chang proceeded to opened Ko, a 12-seat upper-class fusion-but-insanely-amazing restaurant, taking bookings 6 days in advance, first come first serve regardless of whether you’re Lady Gaga or say, me.
But I mean, as if I’m ever lucky enough to get a spot.
Instead, I just befriend those who have luck and so it was with a certain Laissez Fare that on Monday night, I find myself amongst the chosen few, welcomed into the Momofuku den. I almost expected the waiters to bow upon our entry, but instead they offered to take my coat and pour me a glass of water. I’ll take what I can get.
At this point I should probably note that Ko has a no photo policy. I KNOW. But what infuriated my narrow food blogging mind further was that in this no photo restaurant, the lighting was superb! It was bright! The dishes were colourful and beautiful and GAHHHHHH. It could at least have been painfully dim. With hideously styled plates. Or something.
image courtesy of www.momofuku.com
Anyway, LF and I are seated on the top end of the bar, with 10 other diners along the bar to our left and the three chefs carefully and I have to say lovingly preparing our food in front of us. I say lovingly because these guys? They are probably the most stress-free chefs in the world. They take their time, they are meticulous. They slice and scoop and preen each and every plate with such attention that it’s almost an art. But I guess you can take your time when there are only 12 plates to create. And everyone has the same thing.
Oh did I not mention? For $125, the same 10-course menu is prepared for everyone based on seasonal produce and availability.
As we settle into – actually you don’t ever really “settle into” bar stools – so as we perched ourselves upon our bar stools, we’re instantly mesmerised by the artistry that is occurring before us. The chefs are not rushing and yelling and cursing like you expect. The way they move is almost fluid, from one dish to another, with guests staggered so they need only prepare about four plates at a time.
We’re first brought a set of three amuse bouche (amuse bouches? amuse bi?) – one piece of house made pork rind, one sweet prawn topped with mustard sauce and a spoon containing one ever too tiny drop of duck liver mousse. The pork rind is light as air and dissolves on contact with my mouth. The prawn is sweet and fresh, but my favourite is hands down the duck liver mousse. So good in fact that when no one was looking, I totally licked my spoon. Ok wait, LF saw. But I saw him lick his too 😉
Now primed for the deliciousness ahead, LF and I ceased all conversation (about work, baby, life, baby, food, baby) and turned our undivided attention to each and every dish, eyes closed, smelling it, tasting it, trying to de-construct the sometimes complicated ingredients, or sometimes just enjoying the genius in its simplicity.
The first and second courses are fish based. First, three slices of fresh Long Island fluke, served with fermented black beans, cherry peppers with a dash of miyoga. The fluke is served raw and is sweet, a contrast to the slight heat of the peppers and miyoga. Second, we’re served Spanish red mackerel tataki (with rice cereal, pickled onions and mustard sauce) which is just insane. Seared at high heat (and lightning speed), each slice is raw on the inside with a layer of crispy skin, normally only attainable if you like deep fried the whole fish.
The next course made me Oh So Very Happy. Toasted brioche with bone marrow served in a bowl of… get ready for it… gruyère cheese broth HELLO. I hovered over the bowl just breathing for the longest possible time. If I had a towel, I’d steam my face over it. The aroma infiltrated my palate and took over my brain and surprisingly, the broth isn’t overly cheesy or thick. In fact it’s light, akin to Asian style soups. How do they even DO THAT with CHEESE?
Course four, a smoked (onsen tomago looking) egg slightly split and oozing yolky goodness, served with American sturgeon caviar and potato chips for good measure. I’m not really posh enough to appreciate the apparent awesomeness of caviar (so shoot me), but what I did appreciate was the smokey smoothness of the egg, the delicate texture of the caviar (pop!) and even the potato chips, which LF tells me “adds texture”. He’s obviously smarter than me.
The next course was my least favourite of the night, because I mean, it was just pasta. Handmade tagliatelle, served with grilled beef tongue and dressed with horseradish, mustard and sauerkraut. Sorta meh, right? Or am I like a 100% certified snob now?
Don’t answer that.
Half way through our dinner and so far I am utterly impressed by Chang’s ability (or should praise be directed at the execution by the chefs on duty?) to so intricately weave clean tastes (fish) with heavy flavours (cheese) and deliver a series of courses so varied yet complementary of each other. On a side note, LF had the alcohol pairing (wines and sake) and I of course stole a sip or two. Honestly? The BEST sake I’ve tasted. Ever.
Our sixth course consisted of two fat, juicy New Jersey scallops and sliced razor clams, served in a clam chowder with celery juice. Perhaps molecular gastronomy had a part to play, but the celery juice was sweet. LF, my new food hero, closes his eyes, a look of sheer concentration across his face. A moment later he opens his eyes – lightbulb moment! – he waves the chef over and asks, “is there dried pineapple in this?”. He was right. He picked the flavour of invisible DRIED PINEAPPLE in this dish. Pfffft to molecular gastronomy. Just throw in some dried pineapple and hey presto!
Course seven, the crown of all crowning glories. I am not even exaggerating when I say this course made me want to cry. Shaved foie gras served over lychees, pine nut brittle and riesling gelée. The tiny flakes of foie gras, ever so delicate and cold on the tongue, dissolving on contact, almost like… ice cream. God, foie gras ice cream. Its velvety texture melts in your mouth, the savoury so perfectly matched by the sweet lychees, its smoothness complemented by the pine nut brittle and everything coming together in a burst of riesling gelée.
It was heaven. I ate so painfully slowly. I think I threw out their two-hour turnaround by about… two hours.
The foie gras was such a beauty to us, a mystery, but when LF asked the chef how they even did this, he nonchalantly replied, “oh we just make the terrine and freeze it, then shave it” like, what? How can you not know this?
After the shaved foie gras, I didn’t really want to consume another thing, ever. I felt at one with the foie gras, consanguineous, I didn’t need anything else to survive. And when I saw that the eighth course was some kind of meat, my heart dropped a little because how? How can a piece of meat compare to the unprecedented awesomeness of the foie gras? It certainly can’t! Unless… it can.
Course eight, honey braised duck, served on Chinese greens with a pumpernickle coated turnip. First thing I notice about the duck is that it doesn’t look like duck. It’s cut into a rectangular block, about 4″ x 1″ x 1″, flanked across the top by the crispiest of skins. There’s no fat at all (“oh we rendered it all” – again totally nonchalantly like, whateverz). The turnip is adorable, whole in all its littleness, stripped naked and coated in pumpernickle powder. I don’t even know how or why, but I momentarily forgot about my supposed monogamy with foie gras.
Dessert! First up, an Earl Grey crème caramel, topped with honeyed buckwheat and calamansi sorbet. The calamansi tang negated the over-sweetness of the crème caramel, resulting in a neutral, palate-cleansing sensation, yet at the same time bursting with zest, flavour and the sweet crunch of honeyed buckwheat. I loved this dessert, and almost wished we finished on this but…
… the final course of the night, caramelised apple cake with oatmeal ice cream and burnt apple sauce. Someone asked about the burnt apple sauce and again, “we just burn the apple like a pepper and purée it.” Oh, of course. I didn’t like the burnt apple sauce, it tasted (and looked) uncomfortably like marmite to my untrained palate (and eyes) and while the cake and ice cream were good, I so wish we ended with the calamansi.
With ten (mostly brilliant, one meh and one OMGAMAZING) courses in our bellies, we watch as the chefs glide through their small space, dressing plates for the next wave of diners. I’m utterly satisfied with the meal, the originality and taste combinations, and disproportionately excited about the shaved frozen foie gras, definitely something I’ve never seen or tasted.
Before setting us free, we’re served one last itty bitty bit of awesomeness. It looks like a little round marshmallow, but we’re told it’s buttermilk, corn and mint. Ok. It feels like marshmallow. I pop it in my mouth and it kind of tastes like marshmallow until… POP! The thing explodes within the confines of my mouth and the mint takes me completely by surprise. This isn’t for the faint hearted. You know the Listerine explosion adverts? Yeah, that.
As we pay and rug up for the blistering cold outside, I glance back at the chefs and their open kitchen area, acutely aware of the fact that I may never dine at Momofuku Ko again. Not for the lack of trying, I’m already scheming to come back in February. My scheme of course being that I will be logging on at 10am six days prior to each of my New York days, clicking madly at whatever time conceivable, hoping, just praying that I should be the lucky one.
And as we leave through the ugly grated door, I take one more look back, and take one rare photograph of the innards of the restaurant. The chef spotted me and I’m not sure if he’s displeased that I snuck the photo or just thinking I’m a batshit crazy food blogging person.
163 1st Avenue (corner 10th Street)
East Village, NY, 10003
212 500 0831