consumed on 4/23/09
I’m in NYC visiting my brother and, per usual, he has a list of restaurants he wants me to try–with Momofuku Ko at the top. He warns me that it’s crazy hard to get a reservation, especially since they only have two seatings of 12 per night. Luckily, checking at 10pm on a Friday night turned up three open spots. Go economy!
On the night of our reservation we meet up in the East Village and find the restaurant on an unassuming street, marked only with the trademark peach. I sneak a shot of the door, as they have a strict no photo policy. Once inside we are greeted immediately and led to our spot at the counter. The restaurant is very small and centers around an open kitchen where three chefs are at work.
We decide to splurge on the $100 (per person) wine pairings, justifying it with “when in Rome.” We start out with three amuse-bouches, all beautifully plated. The braised fennel on quark with hazelnut oil is a nice bite of fresh, but forgettable. The chicharon with togarashi is downright bad and akin to gas station pork rind snacks. Our last bite of biscuit with honey and black pepper is the best of the three, but overwhelmingly oily, sweet and dense.
Our next course of fluke with buttermilk, poppy seeds and chives arrives and our taste buds perk up. We both confess that the rocky start had us worried. The fluke is raw, thinly sliced and melts in the mouth. The combination of sour buttermilk and crunchy/nutty poppy seeds is intrinsically strange, but marries beautifully with the fluke.
The sea urchin with pea vines in dashi is gorgeous: bright orange urchin against dark green pea vines and cleverly disguised cucumber shaped like peas. I briefly wonder if they make a melon-baller that small or if someone cut them by hand. My brother and I are not fans of sea urchin texture, taste or smell, but this is creamy-sweet and wonderful with the cold, savory dashi broth and bright taste of shiso. I look at my fork then back to the bowl of broth, wishing they served spoons with this course. I turn to my brother to comment and watch with abhorrence and jealousy as he tips the bowl to his mouth and slurps the remaining dashi. He sheepishly gives me a shrug that implies it was too good to waste.
Next comes hand-ripped pasta with snail sausage and crisped chicken skin in butter sauce. I think snails are repugnant and I don’t find them redeeming in the garden or on the palate. However, I learn that if you grind them into a sausage, mix them with spices and drown them in butter they can be quite tasty. The sauce is like a beurre blanc but without the wine or shallots; yeah, basically like a stick of emulsified butter on the plate (not complaining). This dish is rich, rich, rich and the added treat of crispy chicken skin garnish sends me over the top. Someone should market crispy chicken skin snacks. I would eat them morning, noon and night.
I’m overwhelmed with tastes, smells, sights and drink, but we plow on with a smoked egg with caviar, potato chips and sweet potato vinegar. The egg has a wedge cut out of it, with caviar spilling out, like the egg has eggs. It’s so beautiful that we pause to ooh and ah… possibly a bit louder than intended. I think the chefs are smirking. The smoky egg splits open and barely cooked yolk combines with vinegar and crisp potato the size of garlic chips. It’s oddly comforting, like eating sunny-side eggs and crispy hash browns. I contemplate licking my plate.
I watch the chef prepare our next course: pan-fried soft-shell crab with birred onions, celery noodles and fresh hearts of palm. I see him pull the apron off, snip the legs and slide the still moving crab into the pan. I hope my brother hasn’t seen this, but he casually asks if I’ve ever read “Consider the Lobster.” I don’t feel like debating the ethics of crustacean pain, so I change the subject until the dish arrives. According to the dictionary, birred means: “To make or move with a whirring noise, as of wheels in motion.” As far as I can tell the bed of onions on this plate are cooked down and “whirred” with a ridiculous amount of butter. Delicious. The celery noodles are long shaves of celery that resemble fettuccine. The fresh hearts of palm are miles better than the canned version, but kind of bland. I am usually disappointed with soft-shell crab; rarely is it crisp enough to mask the chewy shell. This fared better than most, but it’s my second least favorite dish on the menu.
Here is where I start counting how many dishes we’ve had, what’s left to come, and how much more I can eat without exploding. But it’s my favorite dish of the night: foie gras over lychee nuts, pine nut brittle, and riesling jelly. I have a thing for foie gras, my brother doesn’t. I offer to eat his portion; he declines. The foie gras is formed into a torchon, which is then frozen and finely shaved over the top of fresh lychee nuts and a sweet, crunchy brittle. Very odd, not in flavor, but in texture and temperature–chewy, crunchy, cold. Addictive. Giddy from wine, we affectionately refer to it as “meat sundae,” again rather loudly.
I flat out sigh when we get deep fried spare ribs with lots of different kinds of onions. I write “lots of different kinds of onions” because at this point I’m drunk and so full that my brain has stopped functioning and I can’t tell the difference between ramps, green onions, or Walla Wallas. Is it good? Unfortunately yes, so I eat the whole thing.
Before the next course comes I visit the restroom to see if emptying my bladder will make more room for my stomach (it doesn’t). I return to find the beautiful and technically inventive guava ice cream with cream cheese crust. They make a quenelle of ice cream and dip it into a liquid cream cheese mixture, which evenly coats the oval and forms a semi-hard shell. I take only one bite… apparently, I do not like guava.
Our final course is black sesame ice-cream with lemon coconut curd and funnel cake. Eating black ice cream is a bit strange. It tastes dark, earthy and sweet. Not unpleasant, but it taxes the brain because the flavors are so diametric. The funnel cake is delicious/sweet/fried goodness. And also about the size of my head, so I only manage about a quarter of it.
I eat. A lot. And sometimes I even feel full. But this is I’ve-never-been-this-full-in-my-life-and-I-want-to-die full. I roll to the subway station and pass out happily on a cold, orange plastic-moulded seat.
For $100 each (not including the wine pairings), this dinner felt like a steal; basically $10 per course. Ko also serves a $160 lunch, which is more tastes / smaller portions, but I bet you’ll still have to let your belt out a few notches. If you go, I recommend not eating anything else for the entire day. And if you’re planning on wine pairings, do not, I repeat, do not stop for cocktails before dinner.
P.S. Due to the no photo policy, my brother kindly re-enacted some dishes for your viewing pleasure.