>> Wednesday, June 01, 2011
The door to one of the hottest reservations in the city is surprisingly inconspicuous. If I had not known exactly where the restaurant was, I would have easily missed it.
The tiny sushi bar hides behind a large, glass door covered with cage-like grating that almost reminds me of a prison - except that these prison doors lock out everyone who couldn't score that elusive reservation. A tiny peach plus two miniscule letters "ko" are your only clues to the mystery behind those doors.
What's so special about this place? David Chang, the brains behind the entire Momofuku empire, pushes the limits, breaks traditional rules, and yet continues to wow diners left and right with inventive dishes that incorporate ideas from all over (molecular gastronomy, Japan, China, France . . .). This guy's a genius who has a natural knack for creating some really unusual, wacky, yet very tasty dishes.
David Chang giving a lecture at Harvard University
Bryan surprised me a week before our New York trip by telling me he had somehow nabbed a Saturday evening reservation at Ko! Needless to say, I was thrilled.
As you may know, Momofuku Ko has a very strict no-photo policy. As a result, you'll see mostly descriptions from my memory as well as a few drawings. :)
The restaurant itself is tiny, resembling an intimate sushi bar. Twelve diners sit on backless bar stools with clear views of the chefs creating their meal right in front of them. The atmosphere is casual, relaxed, and fun. It's fascinating to watch the action in the kitchen, and it's fun to be in such a cozy environment.
There's really no menu since everyone basically eats the same thing. You inform the server of your dietary restrictions, but other than that, the courses just start coming out. Everyone enjoys the same ten or so courses for the evening.
Momofuku Ko Tasting Menu
Sunchoke white bean soup with maitake mushrooms
The first course was like an amuse. We got tiny shooters of this beautiful, deeply flavorful soup. The mushrooms added a lovely earthiness that worked beautifully with the sunchokes. It was creamy, salty, and a great way to get us excited about the meal that was to come.
Housemade pork rind with togarashi
Santa Barbara uni, "panna cotta" with apple and bird chilies
Uni, which is already naturally creamy, works great as a panna cotta. David Chang kicks his up with the addition of spicy bird chilies and apples.
New Jersey diver scallops, cucumber snow, radish, jalapeno, avocado
Beautifully fresh, raw scallops were served topped with cool and refreshing cucumber "snow."
Mackerel, kombu, puffed rice over beet puree
Caviar, egg, potato chips, and sous vide onions
This beautiful egg dish, complete with a side of homemade potato chips, is wonderfully rich and flavorful. The runny egg, cooked a perfect 5 minutes and 10 seconds, has black caviar spilling out of it, resulting in a stunning presentation.
Mustard, horseradish, ricotta cavatalli, fried sauerkraut, beef tongue
Bold, unusual combinations are prevalent in many of the dishes, including this pasta dish, which has pungent horseradish and crispy fried sauerkraut.
Skate with almond milk foam, olives, cauliflower
David Chang thinks one of the worst crimes in food is to under season food. In this dish the saltiness of the olives and the skate are offset by the sweet almond foam.
Pine nut brittle, shaved fois gras, lychee, reisling gelee
Mouillard duck, turnip with pumpernickel bread and charred mustard greens
So, I did manage to snap one picture before I was told that photos were not allowed. This duck dish was quite nice, though it did not blow me away like some of the earlier ones. The duck was perfectly cooked, the flavors were good, but overall the course was not particularly memorable.
Honey sorbet, solid milk, lemon-thyme foam
Sort of a palate cleanser, this is the first of our two sweet endings to the meal.
Parsnip glazed doughnut, parsnip caramel ice cream
Parsnips are naturally sweet, so they actually work quite well in ice cream. Of course, the caramel is a much stronger flavor, and it definitely dominated the flavors of the dessert. Frankly, I had a hard time tasting the parsnips in the glazed doughnut, even though the dish overall was still quite enjoyable.
At the end of the meal, we asked whether they could take a picture of us in the restaurant. The server was kind enough to oblige, but requested that the background be the blank wall, not the kitchen. He kind of muttered, "they're kind of strict like that."
So, this is us at Momofuku Ko. You can see the door in the background. We were one of the last people to leave (after all, we had a 10PM reservation!), so it's pretty empty since it's well past midnight by this point.
How did you get a reservation?
Reservations at Momofuku Ko are notoriously hard to get, although not impossible. You have to sign up for an account in their system. Exactly one week (or two weeks for lunch) before the day you want to reserve, log into the system at 10AM and click away as fast as possible. Seats disappear within seconds, so you have to be really really fast. Furthermore, it's not reserved until you actually complete your transaction. Bryan lost out on his first try at the last step and he had to go back to the homepage to book another time. By that point, only the 10PM reservation was left.
Weekend reservations are the most difficult to get. If you're willing to go on a weekday, it's somewhat easier. In fact, the last time I went to New York, there was actually availability on a Monday evening for a party of two at 7PM (!!). This was still available just a few days before the dining date. Unfortunately, I had a party of 7 so we ended up going to Marea instead.
Lunch versus Dinner?
Unlike most places, the lunch tasting menu at Momofuku Ko is actually a grander tasting and costs more. Instead of 10 courses over two hours for $125, the lunch tasting is 16 courses over three hours and costs $150.
We had a fantastic time at Momofuku Ko. The surroundings are casual and the space is intimate and small. It's fun to sit around this tiny bar and watch every single dish come to life right in front of your eyes. David Chang is unconventional but also naturally a genius when it comes to cooking. His dishes are inventive, very flavorful, and fun to eat. Not every course is mind-blowing, but enough of them are to make the entire experience quite enjoyable.
163 1st Ave
New York, NY 10003