In its first iteration, despite a reputation for great food, I could never be bothered to go to the purportedly cramped, camera-phobic and aloof Momofuku Ko, but then it moved and it changed. It was no longer cramped, cameras were welcome, the staff was reportedly friendly and most importantly, the food was supposed to be as wonderful as ever. I finally went, and here, in mid-2016, is my long overdue report on one of my best meals of 2015, albeit late 2015.
Momofuku Ko is not a large restaurant in terms of the number of diners seated at any one time, but it is not a small space, either, with the majority of it devoted to a grand, open, central kitchen with an elegant, U-shaped dining bar encircling it and an outer flank of a few tables. Rather than cramped and tight-fitting, the amount of space per diner is simply luxurious. On the far side of the entrance are glass-fronted refrigeration units that present a tableaux of ingredients. Dining with my good friend, Joseph B., we were seated centrally along one counter, overlooking the heart of the kitchen with the stocked refrigeration units providing the colorful backdrop. For a complete view of the dining area and kitchen take this amazingly cool 3-D virtual tour.
Of course, we started with a cocktail. The Old Fashioned was well made and not overly sweet, a frequent downfall of the cocktail. The cocktail in the photo above may not look, on first glance, all that special, but on a closer inspection, it should be easier to understand the level of detail that really helps this stand out. While difficult to see, this drink has a large square of ice inhabiting a good portion of its real estate. It is precisely the difficulty of spotting the ice that is such an impressive detail as true clear ice is a hallmark of a top notch bar program. The other thing that set it apart from other Old Fashions is that it contained “bonji” the fermented Momofuku proprietary “essence,” a soy-like liquid seasoning that added elements of umami to the cocktail.
As per the norm for contemporary tasting menu restaurants, the meal commenced with a few interesting and very tasty snacks. These vegetable rolls were crisp, clean palate cleansers reminiscent of Vietnamese spring rolls. It was a lovely way to open the palate for what was yet to come.
More crispness followed in the form of a lobster paloise with a mint sabayon, ranch dressing filled pommes soufflée and rye crisp millefeuilles filled with trout roe, yuzu kosho and dusted with green tea matcha powder, each an exercise in delicate, crisp and creamy deliciousness. I could imagine serving a tray of the lobster paloise at a cocktail party and being revered forever. The pommes soufflée was essentially a potato chip with ranch dressing all dressed up, but it was the presentation that truly elevated it into something that while recognizable from a flavor and textural perspective, was made all the more fun.
I don’t eat potatoes very often anymore, but when I do, they should be like the creamy, rich puréed potatoes that accompanied the blissful, salty, explosive Siberian sturgeon caviar and the crisp acid of the pickled radishes in a totally well-balanced and luxurious dish.
A strong japanese influence is everywhere in American fine dining these days and David Chang is one of the reasons why as he helped to bring Japanese, Korean and Chinese influences into the American mainstream over the past ten or so years. Of course, he had plenty of help with that, but the influence of east Asian cuisines plays an essential role in his Momofuku culinary empire and not in the least at Ko. Madai or Japanese sea bream was served with a fish stock consommé, Australian finger limes and a spray of shiso essence to complete this wonderful dish.
To wash the early part of our meal down, Joe and I shared a bottle of German Riesling, never a bad choice when it comes to food pairing with seafood and more and Jordan Salcito, the Momofuku wine guru had put together a very nice selection.
Razor clams seem to have become a very “it” ingredient in recent years and with good reason – they are delicious and adaptable. These exquisite morsels were presented beautifully with a pineapple dashi, basil oil and basil seeds.
The next dish was the dish of the meal and one of my top dishes of 2015. It has been written about widely and justifiably so. Uni is certainly another “it” ingredient and one that I particularly enjoy, but one that has become difficult to make truly stand out. At Ko, paired with puréed chickpeas and “hozon,” a proprietary Momofuku fermented product like miso except made from chickpeas, it was an absolute gem, paired in consistency and color with complementary flavors, neither overwhelming the other. This was a dish of sheer brilliance reminiscent in style to a scallop-avocado dish that I had at Saison a couple of years prior. Like that dish, it was all about the blending of perfect flavors and soft textures.
Bread is not something that I eat very often anymore, saving those carb calories for when the experience will be truly extraordinary. Such was the case here with Ko’s sourdough bread with fermented black radish butter. It’s beautifully crunchy crust and pillowy crumb were well worth the extra insulin and then some, especially when paired with the superb butter.
When I listened to the description of the wine being poured, the Indigéne Crémant from the Jura by Bénédicte et Stephane Tissot, I thought for sure that the next course was going to be a foie gras course. Treated to a second fermentation with the inclusion of a vin de paille dessert wine, this wine had a hint of honeyed sweetness overlying a nice complexity. Interestingly, the wine was mixed with a Vin Jaune, also from the Jura. However, it was not paired with foie gras.
Instead, it was paired with a dish centered on sliced, raw matsutake mushrooms, celeriac purée, fresh celery juice and sansyo. This was a rich, creamy dish that was absolutely marvelous with the wine pairing.
For the following dish , a meaty section of halibut was dressed with cauliflower, yellow wax pepper and elements of preserved tomato and preserved sea urchin. This was another tremendous dish with a fabulous finish that illustrated the true beauty of the food at Ko. None of the flavors were over the top. They were subtle and weaved together to highlight each individually and enhance those entwined around them. In this dish, the fermented elements were sufficient to provide enough of a mesmerizing funk without hijacking everything else.
The next dish looked a lot simpler than it was. Pasta, right? Yes, but. It was agnolotti, but other than that, there was nothing ordinary about this dish. It was filled with kabocha squash and had dried and smoked duck legs grated over the top and an agrodolce made with duck legs. How was it? Superb!
Elysian Fields lamb was coated in mustard and nori, grilled on an open fire with Japanese binchotan charcoal directly in front of us and served with a Calabrian chile and fennel sauce.
The heat from the chiles was present, but kept in check enough to be able to taste all of the flavors and enjoy all of the flavors.
It was washed down with an appropriately robust 2012 Syrah from Domaine Rostaing.
Foie gras is often served early in a meal, making it a quick filler due to its richness. At this meal, the foie was used as a bridge course from savory to sweet, which made perfect sense, both conceptually and actually. This foie had been shaved over a bed of lychee, pine nut and riesling jelly. It was luxury that was refreshing, well balanced and totally delicious – a truly outstanding foie gras preparation that wasn’t overly filling either.
Desserts, once a complete pleasure for me, are now often a cause for trepidation as I keep one eye on my blood glucose monitor and another on the dessert, trying to gauge how much of it will be worth eating. Generally, I will at most take a taste of even the best desserts. Pistachio and apricot combined ice cream with preserved fruit that was not too sweet and quite complex in terms of the depth of flavor. It was a winner and a great segue into pushing my insulin button.
Carrot cardamom ice cream served with a meringue was every bit as wonderful and well balanced and deserving of another push of my button.
Finally, the chocolate-fernet cookies that finished the meal also deserved yet one more push of the button making my pump flow like an outlet from a reservoir to California farm country.
Momofuku Ko has become one of the most comfortable, luxurious, delicious and dare I say, friendly restaurants in the United States, up there with only a handful of peers. David Chang and Sean Alex Gray have the kitchen humming smoothly, creating dishes that are intellectually interesting, beautiful and above all, delicious. While it’s current menu price of $195pp for lunch or dinner is by no means inexpensive, with its combination of great food, drink, space, environment and unique creativity, it may very well represent the finest value in fine dining in the United States today.