Momofuku Ko, NYC
March 30, 2009
On March 27, 2009, Tom and I went to lunch at Momofuku Ko, an extraordinary event. I had obtained the reservation quite by accident. On March 23 I was trying without much optimism for a Ko lunch reservation on April 5, thirteen days out as required. When the lunch reservation grid popped up at 10:00:03, I saw a green check amongst all the red X’s and naturally clicked on it without hesitating to see for when it was, expecting to receive the normal word that someone had beaten me to it. But no, I had a reservation for four days away. Someone must have just cancelled. Linda didn’t want to join me so I emailed Tom, who is always up for culinary adventure – the more exotic, the better. We had the latest seating time for lunch, 12:45; the earliest is 12:00. (In the evening there are five times from 6:50 to 7:40 and five more from 9:10 to 10:00.) We met at Ko’s almost hidden door, marked only by its trademark peach, at the appointed hour. (You get a little map with your confirmation email.)
We were seated in the middle of the twelve-seat counter, which was good as we could hear some of the conversation between eaters and chefs on both sides. The classic rock music was at a tolerable level, although it did have its unfortunately loud periods as the afternoon progressed. The music is a sign of Ko‘s entrepreneur, celebrity chef David Chang. There are reports that he is now seldom seen here and that since November he has spent much of his time traveling outside the US, but others say he came in when they were there and helped cook.
Our fellow lunchers were all twenty to thirty years younger than us. They included a couple on the last day of her maternity leave, a sous-chef at Eleven Madison Park and an owner of a small hotel in the West 40’s. In front of us were the four cooks, all pallid seemingly American men in their 20’s. Alongside and behind us were two attractive and efficient young women who were the greeters, coat checkers, beverage servers, plate removers and bill bringers. We also saw the dish washer emerge from behind from time to time; he seemed to be a South American Indian, as so many are in NYC.
Right in front of us was the station of Sam Gelman, the 27-year old Iowan sous chef. He is the working head of this team which works the three lunches served each week and two of the seven evenings. (The other team is headed by Peter Serpico, chef de cuisine/partner of Ko.) Sam Gelman is friendly and calm. He speaks softly, but knowledgably. He hardly ever had to give instructions to his associates, who functioned as a well-trained, dedicated team.
We were given a little black book with a wide selection of beverages. The front page simply said that the food for the three-hour lunch is $160 and that the optional drink pairings, which we decided to take, are offered at $95. (In the two-hour evening meal the food is $100 and there are three different price levels for the pairings.) A glass of Joël Falmot Champagne was poured for us. It had a nice toasty, yeasty flavor.
I asked if I could take photos and was told no, a policy put in place a few months after Ko opened a year ago. I can understand that big cameras, elaborate focusing and framing, multiple shots etc could be quite annoying. But with my little pocket, self-focusing, low-flash camera I would not have annoyed anyone in this well-lit, casual ambience. I regret that the world will never see how marvelous this blogpost could have been with at least eighteen photos of the beautifully presented dishes; twelve of the beverage labels, some of them quite exotic, and at least twenty of the great culinary theater which the cooks were putting on directly in front of us.
Even without taking photos I was constantly struggling to take accurate, complete and legible notes on what we were being served. I would watch the preparations, see what was being served to those ahead of us and try to listen to what was said to them. That way I could have a start on the notes. I’d scribble as the dish was described to us as it was being served. Tom would help me out, but some of the dishes were very complicated and used ingredients I had never heard of before. Frequently the beverage was being poured at the same time and I would only get a quick look at the label. The cooks were helpful and friendly, would repeat things and answer our questions. I think we were fortunate in our fellow diners as I have the impression from other reports that an ignorant or pushy diner can make the cooks clam up. But we still missed a lot as you will see below. Sorry. Sam Gelman would sometimes show us the package for the ingredients, usually in Japanese with a few English words, but he was too busy just to occupy himself with us. I regret that they do not print out a one-page menu from a computer each day for the diners. It would be a simple thing to do as there are few, if any, changes from day to day. So much prep work has been done by the team before the diners arrive that it is obvious that they know what will be served. One report says that one ingredient of one dish is changed every day which results in a complete changeover every three to four months. That is an interesting story with probably a grain of truth, but seasonal changes must be less gradual.
The first course was a little cylinder of souffléed potato filled with crème fraiche topped with a dab of caviar from hackleback sturgeon, native to the Missisippi River basin.
Second: a square of beef short rib cooked sous vide, then deep fried, with pickled mustard seeds and other garnishes.
A bamboo cube topped with crushed ice on top was placed in front of us; the next four courses were served on the ice. We were still eating with chopsticks which were at our places, resting on a cork, when we arrived.
Our champagne glasses were refilled.
Third: An oyster topped with hackleback caviar and a little piece of lime.
Fourth: A sashimi of “Japanese kampachi” (probably yellowtail or amberjack ocean-farmed off Hawaii) with lemon jam and other garnish. Very good.
Fifth: Sashimi of Long Island fluke with tobanjyan, fermented miso bean chili paste, and finely julienned onion.
Sixth: Japanese sea bream, blood orange, avocado and a lot of other stuff. We had enjoyed watching this very complicated dish being prepared in front of us.
At this point the cubes with ice and our chopsticks were removed. Forks, knives or spoons were then served as appropriate with each course. We were poured a glass of Hungarian Apátsági Tramini (gewürtztraminer.) It was slightly spicy and sweet; it could stand up to the cevice.
Seventh: A cevice of Nantucket Bay scallops with Meyer lemon juice and fresh zest, freeze-dried soy sauce, watermelon radish. Very good.
The third wine: a Scholium Project Verdejo from the Suisun Valley in California.
Eighth: Santa Barbara sea urchin, tofu skin, crisp black rice.
The fourth wine: a 2005 Côtes du Jura Savignin.
Ninth: Three thin long slices of octopus; the octopus had been rolled in a torchon to keep them from curling and cooked sous vide. They were then sliced and served with cabbage marinated with mustard oil, spicy aioli, seaweed and a buckwheat croquette. Very good.
The fifth wine: a 2006 Saint-Bris AOC Sauvignon Blanc
Tenth: Puffed egg in a bacon-dashi (kombu) broth. The aerated egg was piped out of a whipped cream siphon into the broth for poaching. A hot little bagel sphere stuffed with bacon cream was served alongside. Very good.
Eleventh: Spring pea soup, fresh tofu, morels and bacon salt. For me there was a bit too much bacon salt; the other flavors are very delicate.
The sixth drink: a Junmai sake
Twelfth: A seared diver sea scallop, sesame, grilled razor clam, smoked grapes, shredded lily bulb. Frothed green tea was poured over it all. We had been watching the brewing and frothing of the tea with curiosity before we discovered its use.
The seventh wine: a Mosel Spätlese Riesling.
Thirteenth: Canneloni stuffed with rabbit, a rabbit loin cooked in buttermilk, rabbit bacon, cabbage, candied ginger, fennel sauce and shaved fennel.
The eighth drink: Komekome-shu sake, fruitier than the first sake.
Fourteenth: Frozen and shaved foie gras, litchis, pine nut brittle, riesling jelly. This excellent signature dish is the only one served on both the lunch and the evening menu.
The ninth wine: 2005 Haut-Cahors Monplaisir.
Fifteenth: Elysian Field lamb cooked sous vide and seared on one side, roasted stuffed onion, sheep’s milk ricotta. The lamb really had a nice flavor. Very good dish.
The tenth wine: Asuncion Oloroso Sherry
Sixteenth: Humboldt Farm blue cheese, aged raw Singing Brook sheep’s milk cheese from Tennessee, pork fat brioche, onion relish, smoked cantaloupe jam.
The eleventh drink was a sparkling Normandy cider.
Seventeenth: Apple cider sorbet, burnt marshmallow, ginger/graham ganache. Sweet.
The twelfth wine: Muscat de St Jean de Minervois (Languedoc.)
Eighteenth: Chocolate fudge, hazelnut nougat, grapefruit, parsnip ice cream. Tom commented later: “the more I think about it, the more I think that last dessert was a whimsical counterpoint to the entire meal. Bitter chocolate, bitter grapefruit, and parsnip ice cream?”
We were given a little jar of pickled vegetables to take home.
The lunch lasted three hours, as we had been told it would. I felt very satisfied. Strangely, I wasn’t stuffed or inebriated. I think that the satisfaction came from the experience taken as a whole rather than as a sum of its parts. The dishes were varied in quality, but only the celebrated foie gras would be a candidate for my composite fantasy meal of the Best of 2009. The ingredients were good, but not lavish. There is certainly better domestic caviar than the hackleback; I didn’t think that the sea urchin, which came in packages labelled in Japanese, was top quality. There were only two dishes which I think of as seasonal for March, the Nantucket Bay scallops and the green pea soup with morels. (When Ko started serving lunch last September, there were reports about how much seasonal produce was included: sweet corn, tomatoes etc. March isn’t the most bountiful season locally, but one can already get shad roe and soft-shell crabs; I bought spinach picked that morning at the Union Square Greenmarket on my way home.) It is interesting that David Chang became famous through his pork dishes, but the only pork here was a bit of bacon in the egg and pea dishes. Theoretically, for my taste, there were too many ingredients in most of the dishes, but that seemed to work and certainly added to the culinary theater even if it complicated my note taking. The beverages were not expensive, but they were interesting and well matched. Having said all that, I still think that the lunch at Momofuku Ko is one of the best dining experiences in New York. The style differences with Per Se or Le Bernadin et al are so extreme that a comparison discussion would be meaningless. There may be a valid comparison with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon because of the same format of serving at a counter facing the kitchen. I have not been there, but have a reservation in three weeks. The only NY cuisine I have had which I can usefully compare with Ko would be the Tasting Menu at WD-50. Starting at the end: WD-50 clearly has better desserts, although Ko wins a point for including a cheese course. When we were served the puffed egg with bacon and bagel, I immediately thought that it was David’s reply to Wylie’s Eggs Benedict, much the way Matisse and Picasso used to reply to each other’s latest hits. Although both use too many ingredients in each dish for my taste, I think that WD-50 is more successful in restraining itself. The level of inventiveness and use of unexpected ingredients is high at both, but I think that WD-50, as the more mature restaurant, has become more successful in ensuring that the imagination doesn’t overshadow the taste. The service at our last two meals at WD-50 was suberb and its photo-friendly policy includes Wylie himself, but it cannot match Ko’s defining strongpoint: the culinary theater of its counter format. Some cynical reports say that the format was established to save the cost of waiters, which I guess it does, but it also establishes a direct psychological link which really worked for Tom and me. Actually Tom wrote: “better than theatrical – more like a private performance.”
But finally I think that Ko loses because of one effect of David Chang’s in your face attitude. I’m not referring to the celebrated reservation system, which seems as fair as any to me for a small restaurant, but particularly to the lack of a printed menu of the day. Straining over the music to hear the complicated ingredients of each dish and the sometimes long names of the beverages, even if one is not trying to take notes, is a distraction: it interferes with deeper conversation between the cooks and the diners; it makes calm contemplation of the dish which has just been presented more difficult; and it breaks the flow which lets us consider the meal as a whole, rather than just the sum of its parts.