May 5, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momo’s in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad

Tom Dobrowski offered an unattainable seat at Ko. How could I resist?
Tom Dobrowski offered an unattainable seat at Ko. How could I resist?

        I loved the one shrimp-and-grits-ramen-soup lunch I had at the original Momofuku.  And I didn’t feel fatally annoyed waiting 35 minutes for my backless wooden perch at his Ssäm Bar just recently. Most everything we ate was that good.  But I am not one of his raving boosters. I have never lusted after David Chang’s soulful butt.

        So I wasn’t tempted to join the daily morning rat’s scrum for an online reservation at Momofuku Ko. I felt a friend would turn up eventually with an extra seat and I’d find myself on one of  Ko’s dozen fiercely contested stools, exploring the wunderstar’s $85 omakase dinner.

Ko's very memorable trout dish makes a stunning photo.

        Then I saw Grub Street’s Monday morning posting about the Craigslist hopeful seeking an amusing companion to occupy his suddenly vacated second seat and buy him dinner. Wife suddenly gone vegan, I thought. Girl friend caught cheating. Quickly I dashed off an email: “People have paid several thousand dollars at charity auctions for dinner with me – but I will pay for yours at Momfuku Ko if you let me sit in your empty seat…I promise fun and a unique experience…My mouth is ready for Wednesday.” 

        The gourmand adventurer, Tom Dobrowski, replied.  He’d had several responses, including word from Frank Bruni, but told me, “I’ll take you over him anyway.”  (Excuse me if I seem immodest, but given the same choice, I’d pick me too.)

        I arrived early. A photographer who’d been shooting the room from the sidewalk through what Adam Platt so vividly described as high tech chicken wire was packing up, (The Times at work, I later learn). When first one, and then a second hostess told me there was no 9:15 reservation for Dobrowski, I was startled and grew anxious. “How can that be?” I asked.

        “Don’t worry.  When he comes, he’ll have his confirmation and we’ll see,” hostess #2 assured me. Then suddenly, a handsome young man burst through the door, shook my hand and surrendered his email reservation to the scrutiny of the two gorgons.  He seemed unimpeachably righteous to me in his business suit, taller than Clint Eastwood, with curly, dark blond hair and blue eyes.  (Yes to the Grub Street blogger who thought it was cute to see this guy taking his mother to dinner. I could have been his mother. Would there have been quite the food-obsessed world we know without this mother?)

        There was some

Crawfish in pea sprout soup.
muttering between the two women, but they didn’t summon the FBI, and one led us to our designated infamous backless unpadded wooden stools. I can’t say I felt loved or wanted in a Sally Field vein. Not with the covey of unsmiling cooks before us. The crew - nimbly slicing, slivering, plating, announcing each dish as it was presented - were too joyless, rushed, indifferent, possibly bored. But at least we’d overcome the reservation mix-up. Given the choice of $50, $85 and $125 wines matches, Tom chose the $85.  I said I’d have a glass of red wine later.  And the holy Changing began (Chang himself nowhere to be seen), with the ritual pork rind, a delicate curl for each of us. I felt a giggle but the chef-server’s face was so stern, I gulped both giggle and rind. Tom’s sparkling Lambrusco was an inspired match - perfect to cut the swathing of pork fat on homemade English muffin served to us on a triangle of slate.

        Chang has already won almost every laurel reserved for rising and fully risen star chefs on the strength of his noodles, pungent broths, fatback and pork belly sorcery.  He’s nominated for yet another title at this year’s Beard awards. He first began showing off with serious fooding after 10 p.m. for the late night crowd at Ssäm, his Korean burrito bar, extending the hours of ambitious offerings till his fetishistic standup burrito fans threatened to riot. 

        Ko, this bare-bones, ũber discreet little cubby - was there a name somewhere outside? I’m not sure - can be seen as Chang’s tempered embrace or reluctant surrender to haute cuisine.  And there is splendor beyond the pork rinds: Louisiana crawfish in a fragrant pea sprout soup with wild mushroom. A pungent oyster in kimchee consommé so heady its small square of pork fat can be ignored without guilt or regret.  The inevitable soft cooked egg, its yolk running over onion soubise, salted with a plop of Hacklebeck caviar. All provocative and delicious.

        I haven’t had a blind date since I discovered the Road Food Warrior twenty years ago,  but this one flows, fed by my excitement in landing here, Tom’s exuberance, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles singing along, and an odd march of  boozy offerings in the $85 category – white wines and red, champagne, beer, icy sake in between. The somber, expressionless Stepford cooks in front of us, spooning peanuts and vinaigrette over New Jersey shore-foraged scallops, dampen the mood, but not fatally. And I’m sure an anti-feminist plot can be found in analyzing which dishes go to the “ladies” and which to “the gentlemen,” in courses that don’t come in pairs. But that means more tastes for us as we trade.  Raw kampachi with grapes is a textural thrill.  Crumbled and whipped ricotta graces Burgundy snail lasagna with asparagus and ramps, though spicy fluke in poppy seed-scattered buttermilk is more
Oyster in splendid kimchee consomme.
interesting than delicious. The deep bowl with flutters of frozen foie gras shavings burying Reisling gelée, pine nut brittle and nuggets of lychee has brought some worthy critics to their knees. But I am forced to taste it again and again to be sure I hate it as much as I do. I wouldn’t be happy lapping up shavings of pork fat either. And yes, at some point I may have been recognized if that explains why we both get the fabulous deep-fried short rib braised in the style of Chang’s Korean mother. 

        Then suddenly, there is Chang himself, “inviting” the happy-go-lucky Dobrowski outside for a chat.  I feel a fog of doom descend. Chang’s temper is well-documented. Is it the mysterious cancellation? Are we about to be tossed out? Has Tom been banished? Is he lying in the gutter never to return?  I feel people pretending not to stare.  I imagine the cooks’ hostility mounting. 

         “He was asking about the cancelled reservation,” Tom offers, as he returns to his seat moments later. “I told him I never cancelled it. Why would I cancel my reservation and then post an ad on Craigslist?  It doesn’t make sense.” I try not to let the Hitchcockian plot spoil my pleasure in the pineapple sorbet on spicy pineapple. Is Tom a heroic Jimmy Stewart, paranoid Cary Grant or total innocent? But then, an officious type brandishing his BlueBerry, accosts Tom right there, at the counter.  “There it is,” he says, pointing to some indecipherable print on the miniscule screen, “Your cancellation.”

        The bean counter retreats as we sit numbly on our dunce stools gamely tasting dessert: the much blogged-about fried apple
Momofuku Ko's modish soft boiled egg with Hackleback caviar.
pie with sour cream ice cream (more amusing in its bow to McDonald’s than brilliant) and a cereal milk panna cotta so weird with its flutters of sweet granola that one taste is enough. And then this stretched out evening is over, the lingering pain burring the earlier treasures. 

        Tom asks for the check – his treat for the pleasure of my company, he says.  But the hostess announces there is no check. “Your meal has been comped.”

        “But I have to pay,” I blurt out. 

        “Why?” Tom asks.

        “I believe Chef Chang feels that if we have made a mistake, you should be our guest and if you have made an error, we don’t want your money.”

        I am stung.  How rude.  How stupid and insulting did Chang need to be?  Henri Soulé used to tear up a check in a fit of pique and so did Andre Surmain in the earliest days at Lutèce. But they had earned their credentials.  Chang is still climbing the foothills of the Himalayas in my book. 

        Perhaps the mystery of who cancelled the reservation the same day Dobrowski received it will be solved. Perhaps not. I am trying not to let the assault and battery spoil the memory of Chang’s uneven brilliance at high handed fork play.


163 First Avenue near 10th Street.
All photos by Tom Dobrowski