I’ve never climbed Mount Everest … barefoot. I’ve never circumnavigated the globe … counterclockwise. I’ve never even taken a trip to outer space … for recreation. Instead, I skipped right to the ultimate challenge: eating at each of David Chang’s restaurants in the course of a single weekend. And now that I’ve returned and processed a minute portion of the sodium intake, I’d like to walk you through that magical weekend filled with pork, pig, swine, and oink.
This is part one of probably three.
Friday, April 23, 2010: Momofuku Ko
Momofuku Ko is like your prom date. It’s hard to get into.
A reservation at Ko requires adroitness, a fast internet connection, and luck. There are only 12 seats and they only turn over the tables once a night. Precisely six days prior to the date you’d like to dine, at the stroke of 10:00 a.m., you have to log on to the reservation system and, with razor-sharp precision, claim 1, 2 or 4 seats. If you would like to dine with a party of three, you need to kill one. David Chang is a monster.
The decor at Ko is minimalist, heavy on the natural woods. Everyone sits at a long wooden bar and watches the chefs prepare the dishes. This is foodie heaven, the equivalent of Shakespeare in the round or one of those surgery theaters where med students watch from above and try not to drop anything in the gaping wound.
The food arrives methodically, as a tasting menu should, with constant attention from the chefs and the professionally hip staff. Each plate receives a brief introduction, which I didn’t document, instead trusting my memory that has always failed me without fail. You can search the internet for many Ko menus, which are constantly changing but, like a band with a catchy song, there are a few hits that appear time and again. The dish receiving the most radio play for Chang is a foie gras snow (think frozen foie gras taken to a microplane like it did something naughty) over lychee, reisling gelee, pine nut brittle. It’s that good. There were suicidal geese lined up around the corner, eager to be engorged.
I’d describe the menu as Contemporary American if doing so didn’t make me feel like an imperialist. It certainly was not what I expected, which perhaps says more about me than Ko. I surmised, based on Chang, the Momofuku brand, and Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar, that this would be an experiment in Korean flavors. But as you’ve probably already surmised, it doesn’t snow foie gras in Korea. And the rest of the menu reminded me very much of a dinner I enjoyed last September at Beast in Portland, Oregon (an extraordinary restaurant serving a tasting menu at a communal table, for $60 (half the price of Ko but we’ll chalk that up to a “cost of living adjustment”)). A couple of dishes to compare and contrast:
At Ko, the foie gras snow described above. At Beast, a charcuterie plate with foie gras bon-bon, sauternes gelee, steak tartare & quail egg toast, chicken liver mousse, pickled shallot pork, pork liver & sour cherry pate.
At Ko, a slow poached egg with Hackleback caviar, fingerling potato chips, sweet potato vinegar. At Beast, frisee aux lardons, poached egg & soft croutons.
This is not to say that the meals are similar, they do diverge significantly (Ko: chicharonne; black pepper biscuit; lamb sausage (deep fried, with some spice); long island fluke with pureed peas & fish roe; hand torn pasta with snail-chicken sausage, fried chicken skin, pecorino cheese; brioche with gruyere broth; skate; duck breast with coin of duck leg, ramps, mustard greens; white wine sorbet; root bear sorbet, pretzel panna cotta, mustard gelee) (Beast: end of summer gazpacho, shaved chorizo & ficoide glaciale (I have no clue what that means either); stuffed veal rolls with pork, summer chanterelles & sauteed greens; selection of cheeses with anise & fleur de sel shortbread, honey, figs, & candied hazelnuts; brown butter crepe, house chocolate & hazelnut spread, vanilla ice cream).
Rather, these two restaurants evoke a similar response from the tastebuds and I’d describe them as representing a similar type of cuisine. When I’m old and gray, or dead from all of the pork belly I ate that one weekend in April 2010, I’ll look back at both of these meals as two of the finest I’ve enjoyed.
However, I’ll end this post with a controversial statement: I still believe that NAOE is the best meal I’ve eaten (yet; I’m young unless the pork belly gets me). Like Nancy Kerrigan, Ko will have to be satisfied with a silver medal.
Stay tuned for part two: Ma Peche and Milk Bar.