[Pigging by Wilfrid: April 14, 2007]
The artful creation of expectations and, more importantly, the agent of their fulfilment? Restaurant gamesman, obsessive conceptualist? Or is he dangling Pooh-like from a balloon which floats higher and higher, singing a little chef song and hoping all the diners and critics will say...
"It looks like another restaurant is about to open. Let's all rush." David Chang: genius restaurateur-by-stealth, or luck-kissed bear of little brain? I know where my money is.
Because, you see, Chang has been playing the "Oops, I'm a star" game with unparalleled success. A recent New Yorker profile (not online) had him tortured with anxiety, self-doubt and psychosomatic shingles as he put together Monofuku Ko, the third and most ambitious restaurant in his East Village empire.
The guys behind the counter were rocking and rolling and trying to figure out which button did what as the first customers strolled through the door. Yeah. In a Gourmet profile (October, 2007) Chang poses with a side of pork slung bandolier-like over his shoulder, more market porter than top chef.
If you can't wait to start eating, take a look at the Spamwise Chronicles. My online colleague was dining just down the counter from me on the same evening, and he's a better photographer.
Let me just pause here and say that Momofuku Ko is (1) remarkably good, (2) should be called Mo Ko from now on, and (3) is not all about the hype.
Indeed, don't believe it - the hype, that is. A some time contributor to Eater.com, Chang made the transformation of Momofuku Ssäm Bar from a pleasant if under-attended Korean-American wrap joint into the hottest late-night foodie scene in town sound like something Pooh might have achieved by following his own footprints in circles in the snow. Ssäm Bar was "a fast food concept that we didn’t know how to operate and no one knew how to eat at", and Chang himself "a special breed of idiot."
This is the story which went untold in Larissa MacFarquhar's admiring and somewhat wide-eyed New Yorker piece. Having smoothly translated the original, tiny Momofuku on First Avenue from a noodle bar into a gem of a casual restaurant with a line down the street by adding smart twists to the menu - red eye gravy here, soft shell crab there - Chang pulled the switch on a grander scale with the larger Second Avenue Ssäm Bar.
The original version puzzled me: it seemed somehow vacant. I wrote:
Very simple menu right now - essentially pancake or "bun" or rice bowl, each with pork, chicken or mushrooms. I may be missing some frills, but that's the heart of it. ...We liked our buns, although the pork was a bit on the salty side. My memory: isn't the pork in the Momofuku buns sliced? Here it was pulled or shredded. Also, it would be good to have soda alternatives to Dr Pepper.
Then, slowly, the restaurant itself crept in through the back door. Beginning very late night only, Chang started to introduce the food he wanted to cook, and telltale touches for off-duty chefs and obsessive foodies like a whole Epoisses cheese on the menu. As soon as the good stuff went prime time, there were lines around the block again for a menu which jauntily crossed borders, casually served - ever try to eat chicken terrine with chopsticks?
Chang and his team of piglets had found a hell of a woozle.
So here I am late on Sunday evening, demolishing the last main meat course at Mo Ko and reflecting on another quality of the Chang restaurants. New York is all about ingredients - every menu tells you the name of the farm, the name of the farmer, almost the name of the hen. Chang and his team are neurotic about ingredients - but they really do get the good stuff.
Right there I am demolishing short ribs from Montana Legend, a century-old family run cattle farm producing organic (etc, etc) beef from an all-Angus herd. Is it good? Just in case, Chang marinates it, braises it, then - just to be sure - deep fries it. I think it surpasses even the excellent Snake River Farm Wagyu dishes at Craft, and may be the best beef dish in Manhattan right now not sourced from Japan.
Oh yes, pickled mustard seeds which pop in your mouth like caviar, carrot, daikon, parsley. Wow.
And the one thing I do not want to discuss is the reservation system through which threatening minefield diners must pick their way to dine at one of the dozen or so seats in what was the original Momofuku Noodle Bar. Eaters and critics are tearing their hair over the fact that you can reserve only on line , and that every seat is always already taken. Just like Per Se - except of course people can and do get in: I did, picking up a cancellation thanks to a tip off.
This restaurant is irreducible to its reservation system, just as chef Chang is irreducible to a cuddly holy innocent inventing hit restaurants by accident. I wonder if some restaurateurs in this town would like to rub his belly for luck?
After the mysteries of the "internets" and confirmation e-mails, you arrive on time and wait a few moments at a single table, set up just within the door, for your seat at the counter to clear. A space this small needs to be all full, all the time. You are handed a complimentary taste of bubbly.
Dinner is $85, and you get what they serve - they being four chefs, on this occasion, including David himself (Peter Serpico is actually "the" chef here, but Chang's presence irresistibly draws attention). Other servers move soundlessly behind you bringing water and wine.
All Chang's joints make a big, swaggering noise about not serving vegetarians. On the spot, though, there are compromises. I had expected dinner to begin with a chicharron. An earlier diner, however, had declined red meat; far from ejecting the sap, the team prepared chicken skin instead. We all benefited, teeth happily shattering the golden, peppered sheets.
I had opted for the upper level wine/sake pairing ($50 or $85), and knew it would be a lush night when a sparkling rosé was paired with the hen crackling.
Everyone gets the same dinner - or not quite; some repeat diners received variations and I was able to try some dishes served to my accommodating neighbor.
What do you need to know? Pecking with chopsticks at dried fruits and bacon; getting sticky-lipped over a warm, chewy muffin with melting lardo; almost weeping over fluke sashimi - and I am tired of fluke sashimi - made savory with buttermilk and texturally vivid with a scattering of poppy seeds; shrugging happily over the deliciously predictable oyster on the shell with pork belly; patting myself on the back over the equally predictable and luscious soft egg with hackleback caviar and potato chips.
Pause again, because here comes one of the jaw-droppers. Scallops with a yuzu vinaigrette.
(Picture courtesy Spamwise Chronicles)
Slow-building warm heat introduced by some red chili oil, but the rich backdrop to the dish a ham broth (or liquid ham fat, I suppose). But not any ham broth - a concentrated essence from the great Benton country ham from Tennessee. As I said, ingredients that matter: a contender for dish of the year.
Another seafood dish was equally heart-breaking: the plumpest, sweetest Louisiana crawfish lurking in a silken green pea bayou.
The food diverted me even from the wine, although a special mention for startlingly rich 2006 Scholium Project Sauvignon Blanc. Two sakes, including a dessert sake, joined the procession, the latter - gambling on my memory now - showing up with another sh0w-stopper, the much-discussed shaved foie gras.
My shoulders were shrugging again. I am lucky enough to have eaten more than my share of foie over the years, and have the embonpoint to show for it. Why did I need a cool torchon flaked into a big white dish? The answer lay with the supporting players: layer on layer of additional accents. Little chunks of Riesling jelly. Slivers of lychee. A crunchy sub-strate described as pine nuts, but presenting itself like the toffeed peanut brittle of my youth. A journey in a bowl.
Then the ribs, and the savory curtain fell with a relatively conservative red miso soup, kimchi style cabbage and turnip, and one of those chewy little rice cakes Ssäm Bar serves in its frighteningly spicy sausage dish.
I did get a taste of a smooth, panna cotta dessert, which tasted like all the cereal bowls of childhood concentrated into a creamy beige slick. There was a sorbet. There was fried (please!) apple pie with sour cream. And there was house-carbonated Banyuls to wash it down.
Then suddenly, as the crew kicked back, the savory curtain went up again. A special cut from right up there somewhere in the shoulder of the pig had been sourced from another excellent supplier, and one of the chefs had cooked it up, just kind of out of interest. As he sliced it for his colleagues, Chang suggested "Pass it around."
And there we sat, full of good food and wine, substituting sublimely fatty hot meat for coffee and petits fours. In the world of chef Chang, it's always time for a little something.
With a slice of perfect pork he sends you into the night.
All things Momofuku can be found here. Can't get in? Try harder. Full disclosure: conversation at the evening's end confirmed that David had recognized me. But I am not important, and I gather he didn't pay Frank Bruni no mind either.