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From Brilliant to Disturbing, Momofuku Ko Is Worth the Trip

A course-by-course review of David Chang’s famed tasting menu restaurant in NYC


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Pomme Soufflé

I'm currently on a week-long sabbatical in New York. And now I have bucket-listed. David Chang is one of America's leading chefs, and his Momofuku Ko is where he made his name. It's tasting-menu only. You make a reservation online a month ahead of time. The cost of the meal is $255 per person (wine pairings are extra). That may sound outlandish, but I never make value judgments on what food is worth. That's a personal thing that depends on your hobbies and your income. Some people pay $800 for Radiohead tickets. If food is your thing rather than music, then David Chang is a Radiohead of the kitchen. He and his team (including Ko exec chef Sean Gray) change the menu every night, and have changed America's perception of what food can be. Over a few hours, we had 15 courses. Some were brilliant. Some were great. Some were good. And some were disturbing.

If you've ever wondered how a night at Momofuku Ko proceeds, here are the descriptions and review of every course:

 

Dish 1: Pomme Soufflé

An amuse bouche. This is a crispy, incredibly light potato chip soufflé. Imagine if your potato chip became a hollow vessel to smuggle a chef-y cream sauce inside. Atop is some sort of green onion powder, dehydrated until it has the consistency of the Laura Scudder's green onion powder dip mix that is still my middle class weakness. Bite it, and that little dough packet crackles and breaks and out flows a cool gush of very thin chive crème fraiche. In that way, it's very much a play on the Super Bowl party standby—Ruffles and sour cream and onion dip. The genius of this dish is the interplay of warm and cold, crackle and cream. Every latchkey kid from the 70s remembers pizza rollssmall frozen pastries stuffed with pepperoni and cheese. This is like that in the same way that Pappy Van Winkle is like Jack Daniels. But, similar concept in form. How they're able to get crème fraiche to stay inside that gossamer potato shell is a miracle.

Rating: Good

 

Dish 2: Lobster Roll

Another amuse bouche. This is another form of pomme soufflé. The potato chip this time takes the form of a miniature silo. Stuffed down inside the silo is fresh, cool lobster meat. It's topped with a riff on paloise sauce. Paloise, traditionally, is the exact same thing as a béarnaise sauce (butter, shallots, peppercorns, white wine vinegar, white wine, egg yolks, salt, tarragon), except it replaces the tarragon with mint. At Momofuku, they replace tarragon with mint and basil. Where many restaurants ruin lobster rolls is by overdressing the lobster, thinking mayonnaise is somehow a bigger star. Momofuku's is perfectly, lightly dressed. The chip explodes, the lobster is released, and the paloise sauce airbrushes the entire experience with silky, creamy, liquid herb. If your most talented culinary school friend decided to get fancy with a bag of Bugle chips, it'd be something like this.

Rating: Good

Dish 3: Fried Chicken Oyster

The final amuse before things got serious. As kids of the 70s, we were raised on Chicken McNuggets. Our parents were no Alice Waters. Our non-American cars smelled like nuggets. Our food pyramid was at least one-third McNuggets. And this is Momofuku's play on our nostalgic jones for bite-sized fried bird. They take the very best part of any chicken (the oysterif you've yet to discover this, next time you roast a bird, turn it over and feel around the shoulder blades of its back to find two delicate, moist, oyster-shaped moons of meat). They fry it perfectly. But what makes it exceptional is the dehydrated honey-mustard that coats the crisped batter. Sounds like it may be dry, but it's not. When the dehydrated dressing hits your mouth, it reconstitutes and melts. That's the kind of trickery Momofuku does, includes your own saliva glands as a cooking tool for its dishes.

Rating: So Damn Good

 

Dish 4: Fluke with Mustard Greens

The first unpleasant moment of the night, but not the last. Here's the thing about a tasting menu at a place like Momofuku. What makes Momofuku so compelling is that they're tinkering, experimenting, trying to breathe innovation into foods. In doing that, you're going to come up with some duds. Radiohead has created some of the most mind-bending music of our time, and in that pursuit they've also got some serious duds. And, perversely, I appreciate these duds. Because a restaurant that aims for the safety zone of our palates is called Denny's. It's like I tell my 6-year-old when she falls and skins a knee; if you're not falling, you're not trying hard enough. The fluke here is rubbed with bonji, which is a cold-pressed liquid seasoning like soy sauce, but lighter and sweeter, made from fermented grains instead of soy beans. Fluke is renown for its delicate meat, but ours is fishy. Fish shouldn't be fishy, this could be an unlucky instance of a supplier having a bad filet among their stock. With the herbal salt, it's drastically better. But the mustard greens are a real problem. They are pickled excessively. Mustard greens are inherently bitter, and the acidic vinegar of pickling just amplifies that. It's like taking Gilbert Godfried's voice and adding Fran Drescher's voice to it.

Rating: Not Good

 

Dish 5: Uni & Chickpea Puree

I admit to a love-fear affair with uni. When good, it's remarkableliving up to its "foie gras of the sea" reputation. It's creamy, silky, delicious. When bad, it tastes like dragging your tongue across the slimy sea floor. What Chang and staff have done here is legendary for a reason. It's a simple dishuni with a fermented chickpea "hozon," bathing in world-class olive oil. This is the uni dish for people afraid of uni (which is technically gonads, which scares more than a few people off). Thomas Keller has his famous "Oyster and Pearls," and Chang has this. It's indescribably deliciousthe slightly oceanic, but sabayon-sweet flavor of the uni, and then the lightly fermented flavor of the chickpea puree. The olive oil just bathes it in green notes and a slight pepper. Our server said she has had many people threaten to lick the bowl, but agrees that I am the first to actually do so. It speaks to my lack of decorum, and the absolute brilliance of this dish.

Rating: So Damn Good

 

Dish 6: The Assassination of Pac Man

Once you see it, you can't unsee it. Sure, they call it the "Ko Egg," but that's a bullshit cover-up. David Chang and Momofuku Ko are clearly whacking an American hero with this dish. Look at the egg. One sturgeon caviar is set as Pac Man's cold, dead eye. The egg is cut into the shape of Pac Man's gaping, insatiable mouth, from which the caviar flows. So, at the very least, Pac Man had a long night and is vomiting his recently eaten pellets onto your plate. But take a closer look. The brown "seasoning" placed at Pac Man's round rear suggests our hero may also have soiled himself. And the pickled beets near his head? Clearly a head wound. Pac Man has bled out. Pac Man is dead. The question, then, becomes: Why do Chang and company hate Pac Man? Maybe it's because Pac Man is a clear representation of America's mindless, excessive eating habits. Sure, some empathy must be given to Pac Man because he's over-eating in an effort to chase his ghosts away. Aren't we all, Pac Man. But, still, this dish is a blatant statement about America's dumb, thoughtless consumption. Or a couple chefs merely said, "Dude, what if we made it look like Pac Man's puking?" And another replied, "Oh dude, now just season the butt." And another said, "How about some beet blood?" This dish is beyond delicious. Even when you're viewed as one of the country's best restaurants, you can still be very serious about your food and have a sense of humor. Take the piss out of culinary preciousness. Whack Pac Man.

Rating: So Damn Good

 

Dish 7: Bread with Cave-Aged Butter

They age butter alongside cheese in tunnels that were built in the 1850s for that exact purpose. The result? Butter that tastes like intensely rich butter initially, and then after two seconds in your mouthit's distinctly blue cheese. What a trick. Some restaurants don't make their own butter. Other restaurants make it, but don't have the patience to let it come to room temp and serve it cold (the worst). Momofuku takes the time to age it in caves.

Rating: So Damn Good

 

Dish 8: Beef au Poivre

Walking into Ko, the first thing you notice is a series of tall, well-lit coolers, in which hang various meats in various states of the dry-aging process. It's gruesome, and transparently beautiful. When you age meat, carefully controlling the temp and humidity, you lose moisture and break down the cell walls. The result is that the beef flavor is intensified, much like how reducing a stock boosts the flavor. This dish showcases the work of time. A strip loin is dry-aged, then very lightly heated on the Japanese grill in the center of the kitchen (using binchotan coals, traditional Japanese coals that are impeccably pure), and plated over a sauce of green peppercorns, chervil, and green onions. It's nearly a carpaccio. The sauce beneath is just the right amount of herbs and heat. It's ultra simple. But there are risks all over the menu. Plainly showcasing a well-aged cut of beef and leaving it be is a statement that your creativity isn't the only thing worth celebrating. The aging process is also a pretty great chef.

Rating: Damn Good

 

Dish 9: Dungeness Crab, Bourbon Broth

Broth is a concept old as dirt, but it's making a big comeback. Part of that can be attributed to the ramen trend in recent years. People were reminded just how deeply satisfying and comforting a bowl of intensely flavored hot water can be, reeking of meat and bones and herbs and holy trinities. This is their riff, some torn Dungeness crab (a west coast specialty, intensely sweet crab that doesn't have that offputting crustacean musk. The broth is spiked with Kentucky bourbon. It's decent. The chefs at Ko likely keep the broth on the light side so that it doesn't compete with the delicate flavor of the crab. But the result is a tad thin on flavor. Tastes like a tea that's been under-steeped. The crab, while awesome meat, could also use a tad more salt.

Rating: Just OK

 

Dish 10: Skate with Black Truffle

Skate is a notoriously fickle and delicious fish. It can be tough, it can go bad real quick, and it's a pain in the ass to cook right. In Scotland they use it to make what they call the world's best fish and chips. The meat comes apart in delicate strings. When cooked, it looks like corduroy. And this dish, oh Jesus, this dish. The aerated potato puree is one of the best things you will ever eat, lavish silk. It doesn't need the black truffle to be great, but the truffle makes it greaterproviding that legendary dark musk a counterpoint to the sweetness of the puree and the skate.

Rating: So Damn Good

 

Dish 11: Grilled Duck with Cabbage

Oh man, this thing looks burnt. Like a child tried to make toast. The skin is blackened to a crisp. So I try the cabbage firstwilted and covered in blood orange and chili oil. The cabbage is an absolute star, worthy of its own dish. Then I pull a piece of duck off andagain, magic. No burnt flavor. Just perfectly seasoned and crisped duck skin and rare-plus meat inside. With duck, if you don't render the fat correctly, it chews like an eraser. And theirs is perfect. My only complaint about this dish is that we were reaching maximum satiation, and I couldn't eat it all. Worse, I asked our server (who was phenomenal, all of the staff was phenomenal, not at all brooding or dark cloudishly self-serious as I'd expected) to wrap up the leftovers. And then we forgot them in the punch-drunk afterglow of our meal.

Rating: So Damn Good

 

Dish 12: Sorbet with Tea Grounds

To be honest, I can't recall what kind of sorbet this was. Maybe it was the wine pairings. Mango. Or passionfruit. It's fantastically delicious, not ice-grainy as some sorbets can be. But then you hit the Earl Grey tea grinds and, oh no. It tastes like someone accidentally dropped their tea grinds on my sorbet and decided to serve it anyway. If you like eating tea grounds, this is your dream dish. I'll politely be elsewhere. Cleansing the palate with dirt doesn't work.

Rating: Not Good

 

Dish 13: Foie Gras, Lychee, Pine Nut, Riesling

That right there is a pile of foie gras shavings covering a tiny pie. Ko is famous for freezing its foie and then shaving it atop dishes. In this case, as in the tea-grounds sorbet, they're attempting to marry savory and sweet. And this time it works. Lychee has such a floral sweetness, the Riesling jelly provides a bit of an acidic backbone, you have texture from the pine nut brittle, and then the funky, delicious fat from the foie. It's not right, but it's pretty great.

Rating: Damn Good

 

Dish 14: Wild Rice Ice Cream with Candied Kombu

Yes, rice cream with candied seaweed. At first bite, it's got a very interesting and pleasant flavor. It has that earthiness only rice has. Feels like someone turned a lunch bowl of grains into ice cream. I welcome that. But then, oh god here it comes, you start to taste it. A deep, soil-esque funk. It lingers on your palate. It's not good. It tastes like compost. I've had uni ice cream in the past, and it also deeply disturbed me. Maybe someone will solve the seafood ice cream dilemma, or maybe it's not something we should attempt to solve. Again, you can't have wild success without some wild failures, and this falls into the latter category.

Rating: Not Good

 

Final Dish: Chocolate-Fernet Branca Cookie with Mint Ice Cream

Fernet Branca is one of my least favorite things in the world. Bartenders love it. It's Jaegermeister for hipsters. It tastes like tree vomit. But alas, I've found a way to love it. In this mint chocolate chip cookie thing. The cookie is both crisp and gooey on the inside, with just a hint of Fernet's trademark dark herbs. And the mint ice cream is what every mint ice cream dreams of being.

Rating: Damn Good

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