163 First Ave. (at 10th St.)
Forget about Mario Batali’s prosciutto bianco, Wylie Dufresnes’ horseradish foam or even Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s flash-frozen wagyu beef. I had it, the most coveted reservation in the current American culinary world: a seat at Momofuku Ko.
Getting the reservation took my friend seven tries; but on the morning he missed alternate side of the street parking, the food gods were gracious even as the traffic deities slipped $45 from his pocket. He expertly maneuvered Ko’s infamous website—the only way to make reservations, no matter who you are—and, after weeks of trying, success was ours. In exactly one week’s time, my three friends and I would occupy four out of only 12 seats at celebrity chef David Chang’s newest, hottest and most exclusive restaurant.
Momofuku Ko’s aesthetic is famously minimal. Comprising concrete, a blond wood bar and backless stools, the space looks much like it did when it housed the original Momofuku noodle shop, only it’s somehow become even narrower. Chang’s concept was to have chefs serve customers directly, from kitchen to counter top, so the limited seating is a logistic necessity. The interaction between chefs and customers makes Ko a unique experience because the kitchen culture, though toned down, is entirely transparent. In an age when restaurant-insider books like Heat and Kitchen Confidential are best-sellers, Ko is a foodie’s dream. The chef’s knife skills made me want to weep. Their sharp, efficient movements screamed, “This is not your mamma’s kitchen.”
The first course was enough to prove Ko a KO. A small, toasted English muffin—two bites, max—soaked in whipped pork fat was a warm delight. Paired with an airy, fried pork skin, the course made me feel smug about my carnivorousness. But then there was the cherry tomato. Oh, the tomato. Dipped in a house molé sauce, the bite-sized fruit granted me what would be my first Anton Ego moment of the evening. Like the character from the film Ratatouille, I was immediately mentally zipped back to my grandmother’s kitchen. While Ego flashbacked to his grandmother’s cottage in the French countryside, the taste of the cherry tomato evoked memories of my grandmother’s small apartment in a Taipei high-rise. It was there I spent several summers of my childhood eating market fresh cherry tomatoes dipped in a mysterious, tart, pink powder mix. To this day, I don’t know that that concoction was, other than to say that it came with the tomatoes when you bought them. Momofuku’s tomato and molé combination was the first time in my adult life I’ve come across anything close to replicating that taste.
The second Anton Ego moment came with dish number five of the 10-course assault: the sweet corn ravioli topped with queso cojito, pickled onions and chorizo. The succulent sweetness of the corn was a high-class version of the creamed corn and ham soup my mother made during my childhood. With sweet corn flavors gently encased in tender fresh pasta and salty exclamation points of chorizo and cheese, the ravioli was a top contender for best dish of the night.
Course number nine was an Arnold Palmer sorbet served on a mint julep crunch. The dish exactly replicated the lemonade-sweetened tea flavor and reminded me of the sugary Lipton powder my father favored. I spent many Saturday mornings of my childhood reading by the basketball court and drinking the over-sweet iced tea mix while my dad played ball in his ’80s-appropriate sports goggles.
The most consciously memory-evoking dish was Ko’s panna cotta, made of milk dregs from a bowl of cereal. Served on an avocado ganache with a chocolate and hazelnut wafer and a sprinkle of toasted corn flakes, the desert was oddly salty and, despite the buzz about it, definitely not my favorite.
Though several dishes powerfully evoked memories, others were far from the comfort food of my youth, representing the best of modern haute cuisine. The most inventive and surprising dish of the evening was the flurry of frozen foie gras served in a mound over Riesling gelée, lychee and pine nut brittle. The single dish was a rainbow progression of textures and flavors: from the salty, buttery cloud of foie gras to the bitter and sharp gelatin of the gelée to the firm, sweet flesh of the lychee and the hard caramel and nut taste of the brittle.
All that’s not to say everything was idyllic in the Ko world. One hostess was a touch high-horsed about our ordering the second to least expensive sake, though the chefs themselves were nothing but helpful and polite. The excessive air conditioning cooled the bacon consommé, individually poured into each bowl from a sake carafe, to a tepid temperature. And it bears mentioning that the price of the meal varies according to the day’s ingredients. So what was an eight-course, $85 meal for Frank Bruni was a 10-course $100 excursion for me. Regardless, the cash dropped at Momofuku Ko is like money spent traveling: For the price, you get an unforgettable experience replete with bragging rights.