Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Mystery of Momofuku Ko Revealed: David Chang's Exclusive East Village Restaurant

A peek inside Momofuku Ko’s exclusive 12-capacity bar with stools facing an open kitchen of three chefs at work does not hold a flame to the fixed 11-course dining experience that commences if you are lucky enough to reserve one of those seats. Only by sheer chance of a cancellation did one of those coveted spots become mine, and by dinner end, I was more than convinced that chef David Chang’s $125 per person price tag was warranted.

Credit: Noah Kalina
 
The two-hour journey this night opened with the opening of a ridiculously smooth bottle of Junmai Gingo sake, the quintessential chaser to each thoughtful nibble. In order - as there must be a method to the madness - the first course was a deconstructed three-parter (to be eaten in no particular order) of a warm sippable lobster consomme, cold grilled mitake shrooms, and an airy chicharon crisp. Second was the palate cleansing pieces of raw fluke with fermented black beans and cherry peppers that packed an intriguing fruity spice. Next, a run-of-the-mill sirloin beef carpaccio with horseradish and rice crisp crumbles, followed by a fabulous non-fatty grilled pork belly and oyster duo in a perfectly salt-balanced kimchee broth.

Fluke (Credit: Gabriele Stabile)

Egg (Credit: Gabriele Stabile)

By the fifth course, the stars began to shine, namely with a runny smoked egg that poured onto salty caviar pearls and paper-thin fingerling potato chips. Upping the ante was a tortellini tossed with chunks of lobster, crispy sweetbreads and pickled watermelon. Spiked with Korean finger chiles and gorgeous tumeric dressing, the unusual combination was surprisingly harmonious. A tough act to follow, the slightly spicy steamed halibut coddled in corn broth with sweet cherry tomatoes and corn tempura didn’t stand out. Neither did the following shaved silky foie gras, whose flavor disappeared in the disjointedly paired lychee pine nut brittle.

Shaved Foie Gras (Credit: Gabriele Stabile)

The best was yet to come in the form of a perfectly pink and juice-laden lamb rib with Mediterranean accents of cubed cucumber and a dollop Greek yogurt sauce wrapped in a leek sheet - the spectacular savory finale. The sweet closers were not show stoppers: a coconut lime sorbet served too chilled to taste with curry caramel popcorn, and the better but still lacking squash cake with olive oil sorbet, pumpkin seeds and candied nicoise olives. Though I will give points for playing with texture.

There were enough excellent dishes to acceptably forget the forgettable ones. And devoid of the stuffy atmosphere that commonly plagues top chef eateries, this unassuming East Village corridor casually convinces you that the outstanding bill is no big fuss. Perhaps this is the true method to the madness.