I was anxious about scouting the new Momofuku Ko. I have never forgotten the chill and hostility of my dinner in David Chang’s old 12-seat shoebox -- click here to read “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momo’s in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.” “Uneven brilliance at high-handed forkplay,” I’d summed up the uncomfortable exercise. I was especially turned off by shavings of frozen foie gras on nuggets of lychee. It subsequently became celebrated as a dish of the century. When Michelin dropped those two stars, one on each epaulet of dour David in 2009, I was shocked. Seven years of two stars later, what had I missed?
Early diners get to watch the Chang’s kitchen entourage warming up.
Now a new era. I read about Chang’s move to a luxurious new command post, with a bar and encircling counters embracing the expanded kitchen, 22 tall chairs that actually have backs and highend accents like custom-made chopsticks.
Looking at this wall from my bar seat, I wondered if the chef played squash?
I am grateful that my friend Wilford had the perseverance to hit his redial morning after morning at the required moment, weeks ahead, to finally score our reservation. Still, I was not exactly happy being summoned at 6:45 pm, not my usual preferred dinner time, to a street I didn’t know existed, Extra Place. I get my assistant to blow up a Google map and set out at an hour ahead in case of unforeseen traffic jams, black ice or a difficult driver.
The startlingly good Negroni and the voice of Janis Joplin put me into a great mood.
But there is no traffic that frigid Wednesday, the streets are clear and my driver knows exactly where to go. That’s how I manage to arrive half an hour early. The guardian at the door recognizes me from La Fonda del Sol. So much for anonymity. I perch at the bar waiting for someone to show me my seat. The bartender ignores me. I am not surprised. That’s was the drill at the old Ko. No one ever actually spoke. Cooks worked in total silence. In the distance, I spy The Chang himself glaring in this direction. Do I just imagine he is staring at me? He scuttles away into the back kitchen.
David Choe is the painter. Somehow as a backdrop for dinner, this works.
A slim woman in a black suit approaches, Jordan Salcito, the beverage director. She knows me too, from a Citymeals event. There are only scattered diners at the counter. She suggests I wait in the bar. There is a life-size painting of an Asian man with a squash racket on the wall at the end of the bar. “Is the chef a squash player?” I ask the bartender. He smiles and asks if I’d like to order a drink. My negroni carries a powerful blast of Campari. “This is the best negroni I’ve ever had,” I tell him. I recognize the cackle and grit of Janis Joplin on the sound system. My music. I am almost happy. Maybe tonight will be okay.
Beverage director Jordan Salcito’s sublime Burgundy sets a big spender’s spirits soaring.
The chosen few filter in behind me and are led to allotted posts.Then Wilford. Jordan knows Wilford too. Sommeliers tend to remember Wilford. Tonight he asks her to suggest a really good red Burgundy. I miss most of the dialogue, just Wilford giving her permission to think big. The wine will be his gift.
The evening launches with savory doodads a 70s bride might have done for a party.
At that point, the very young cook working in front of us looks up, smiles and presents some small doodads: lobster mousse inside a filo cup, a tartlet of grated squid and mimolette cheese. I write it down and quickly take a photo. No one says “no photos.” These amuses are cute little thingies, too small to obsess about. The next doll-sized bite involves striped bass and pickled daikon, according to my scribble. Another photo. A duo of layered rye flour puff pastry triangles are “mille feuilles” of béchamel, trout roe and dum-de-dum (not totally legible) with matcha tea dusted on top. Ooookay. A little bigger mouthful, very nice pastry. No one seems to mind my taking notes.
Another cook is fileting a fish. It’s buri. That’s what they call the large, wild yellowtail from Japan. “I gave you each pieces from three different parts of the fish’s body,” the cook confides proudly.
Rare wild buri sashimi from three parts of the fish is topped with pickled radish.
Jordan returns to decant a 2010 Mazey Burgundy. “I’m so happy we can get buri,” she notes, “because they only give it to the most important Japanese restaurants.” She points out a specimen hanging in the refrigerated glass wall behind us.
This carafe – scary and beautiful – looks like it was made in Murano for a rich vampire.
Unlike the stingy little glasses at the old Ko, these goblets are mouth-blown Zalto with the telltale thin stems – as they say, wine glass stems, like rich women, can never be too thin. The handblown carafe covered with bulging, blood red veins, looks like it flew in from Murano. Just because the sommelier has chosen a $535 burgundy doesn’t guarantee it will be wonderful. Wine is full of surprises. But in fact, it is wonderful. It’s glorious. Jordan is as thrilled as we are.
Meat, birds and fish hang on hooks in the glass refrigerator wall behind us.
That is why I warn you now not to trust me. Nothing I say about the 17-course $175 dinner ($246 with drink and tip) at the new, surprisingly handsome Momofuku Ko, with its eccentric art in this improbable little alley between lst and 2nd Streets, can possibly be trusted. That’s how intoxicating a few sips of wine can be.
The cooks do their dance with smiles, pirouettes and unrationed information.
It’s not just me and Wilford with our Cheshire smiles. In fact, everyone is smiling. The kitchen crew wheels and turns in its practiced ballet. Each cook presents one or another creation politely, even proudly, with a detailed rundown of ingredients. You may or may not get every word. You may be too enchanted with your date or your luck at scoring a seat to say, “Mimolette...what is mimolette?” (It’s a very ordinary French cheese you rarely see anyone champion.)
Raw scallops in pineapple dashi with basil and dehydrated basil seeds.
Bay scallops in pineapple dashi with basil and little black dehydrated basil seeds is straightforward. And delicious. What looks like a small black marble is a grilled sun choke filled with dry-aged beef and tarragon and poached in beef fat. Blood orange is involved somewhere too.
Uni with a custard of chickpea hozon – an invention of the Momofuku Culinary Lab
Unless you are a Chang fanatic, possibly a sycophant, you may not know that the chickpea hozon nuzzled alongside the Okinawa sea urchin was actually invented by Chang in the Momofuku Culinary Lab in an exploration of unami. Bonji and hozon are “basically our versions of soy sauce and miso,” he explains in an online video. Attempting to make miso with pistachios instead of soybeans, he realized it couldn’t be called miso because that would “be like saying California cheddar is like cream cheese.” It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know that. You can just close your eyes and inhale that uni.
Seared mackerel sabazushi on loosely crisped rice – eat it quickly before it falls apart.
Pressed mackerel sabazushi with dashi ponzu sits on a fragile platform of crispy rice. Executive chef Sean Gray uses a new tool called the Searzall to sear the fish and toast the rice. “Use your fingers,” he urges us. It’s a quick, savory mouthful, one of my favorites of the evening.
More intellectual than sensual is coriander-oil scented mackerel dashi with floating sticks of raw king oyster mushrooms and Asia pear-apple, a distillation I wouldn’t dream of testing against the Burgundy.
I love breakfast, certainly these scrambled eggs with osetra and fried potatoes.
Soft scrambled egg topped with more eggs (osetra) alongside potato crumble pleases me. Breakfast, after all, is a meal I love and a segue from the French amuses and Japanese riffs that remind me Chang’s kitchen is American, after all. I spot him again, briefly scanning the action from the kitchen perimeter, scowling, then escaping backstage.
Celery root and black truffle agnolotti with tandoori-dusted celery root crisps.
We’re by now admiring the celery root agnolotti in a handsome explosion perfumed with black truffle topped with tandoori-dusted celery root crisps. And then, possibly the rarest cooked lobster I’ve ever tasted, torched a la minute, with sweet potato puree and a puddle of lobster sauce outlined with a ribbon of parsley puree.
Ethereal, barely-cooked lobster comes with sweet potato, and apple soda.
I’m not sure if the fermented apple and carrot palate cleanser comes before or after the bread -- marvelous bread -- and butter. Perhaps it’s meant as prep for the signature grated frozen foie gras with lychees and Riesling jelly, no longer so shocking. Is it possible? I almost actually like it. Could be I’ve mellowed. Could be the Burgundy effect.
Muscovy duck steak in lime pickle sauce is served alongside watercress with XO sauce.
A thick wedge of “aged 10 to 14 day” Muscovy duck breast lands at a moment when I’m feeling close to enough. There is a bowl of cooked greens, too, salty from XO sauce, and an oval of crème fraîche to thin the bird’s lime pickle sauce, an overwhelming sludge I instantly try diluting.
Chocolate cake with fennel bran in the sauce and mint ice cream.
Clementine-Campari sorbet couldn’t be more timely. I scarcely need the chocolate Fernet Branca cake with mint ice cream that follows, but there it is, demanding to be at least tasted.
Sunflower hozon macaron and a delicate cookie sandwich filled with dulce de leche.
All evening between dishes, Wilford and I have watched Carlos, the young Ecuadorian cook at a station directly in front of us, buttering cups to make miniature pastries – the small opening bites and the miniature finales.
Now he presents our farewell cookies: a duo of macarons stuffed with sunflower hozon. And vanilla cookie sandwiches layered with dulce de leche.
Wilford is dashed. “Why didn’t we get some of the canelé you were making?”
Carlos smiles. “Not for tonight,” he says.
If you’re not burned out on extended tastings, and you’re feeling flush, I think I can authoritatively say this one can be fun: Chang fielding a devoted team as he goes for that third Michelin star…or whatever it is he wants.