I was quite lucky that I got a reservation online at Momofuku Ko early this week without any major technical issues that some other people mentioned. I know there was a request of a review in another thread. Although I don't normally write reviews for restaurants (as I believe you need at least 2 or more visits to know if a restaurant is really good or bad), I will write a bit (just some of my thoughts, not a review per se) about my dinner at Ko to share with my fellow chowhounds from whom I have learnt so much over time.
Just as a side note, I actually regretted that I read the reviews (e.g. Ruth Reichl) and pictures posted by other early Ko diners. Why? I felt that with the reviews I had created some unfairly high expectations to the dinner at Ko, and the pictures had somehow eliminated the "wow" factors for me. If I didnt't have the pre-dinner exposure of the dishes, I think the dinner would have been a notch better. In addition, it was afterall a tasting menu that you wouldn't be able to choose the courses anyway, so you don't need inputs for what to order or to avoid. If you are planning to go to Ko soon, please keep this in mind as I don't want YOUR dining experience to be affected by what I wrote below. I am not a professional blogger or critic, so please excuse my unsophisticated language in describing the food and experience.
The 11-course tasting menu was more or less the same as the picture set from Kathryn, with an addition of an amuse and some minor variations. I am not going to post any pictures, but if you are really interested, let me know and I will post some upon request.
The restaurant was only half full when I entered the unadorned tiny Ko with an early reservation. The staff was extremely efficient and friendly in providing us with coat check and seating us. The restaurant applied a simplistic approach to everything from the table wares, the kitchen, and the restaurant décor itself, which was very consistent to other Momofuku restaurants. It wasn’t fancy and the clean design was very unintimidating and causal.
I didn’t choose the wine pairing as I knew I would be too full with all the wine and the food. Instead, I opted for a Momofuku private-labed sake which had a neutrally clean, dry, and slightly sweet taste and it was an excellent companion to all my entire dinner.
To save some words, I will list out the each of the dishes in the tasting menu and a short description of what I felt about them.
1. Pre-Amuse Bouche – Fried Pork Rinds with Togarashi Pepper (2 pcs for 2 ppl)
These were the best pork rinds I had even tasted. The pork rinds were extremely fresh and crispy without any of the rancid fat taste you might have experienced from the vastly marketed pork rinds. I noticed the superior pork flavor and upon asking I was told that the pig skin were from Four Story Hill Farm. No wonder these pork rinds were so decadent and additive. A touch of the togarashi pepper, an ingredient that I used extensively in my Japanese cooking, provided an extra dimension of spicy flavor. My only complaint was that there were only two pieces, and with pork rinds that good, I could really eat them by bucket!
2. Amuse Bouche – Mini English Muffins with Whipped Pork Fat, Sea Salt, and Chives (2pcs for 2 ppl)
The mini muffins were toasted to give a slightly crispy outside and were soft inside. The pork fat had a very mild taste, which might be good to people who did not prefer intense pork fat flavor. However, for me, it was a bit too mild and I wouldn’t have known that it was pork fat if I wasn’t told. It reminded me of the lard served at Del Posto, but this one was a toned down version. I found this amuse good and was not excited by it.
3. Fluke Sashimi with Spicy Buttermilk Sauce, Poppy Seeds, and Chives
I always believe that simple preparation is the best way to highlight high quality fish, and this dish was an excellent example of my belief. The chef entertained the diners with his superior knife skills and sliced the fillet of fresh fluke into slices. Four delicate pieces of fluke sashimi were then placed into a bowl like flower petals with a spicy buttermilk sauce. Topped with poppy seeds and chives, this dish combined the sweetness of the fish and the buttermilk sauce, with an additional spicy kick (Sriracha was the secret, I was told). The poppy seeds not only provided a textural contrast but also a hint of nutty flavor. I found the flavor, texture, and presentation of this dish to be all excellent.
4. Pork Bellies with Oysters, Kimchi Consomme, Bok Choy
I once watched David Chang on the Beekman’s show and he mentioned that the combination of pork and oyster is actually a classic Korean approach. It was not surprising to see that this combination appeared in the Bo Ssam at Ssam Bar and here at Ko.
The two slices of slightly grilled pork bellies had the right amount of fat and meat to provide a luscious mouth feel. Again, there was no question that the pork was of high quality, and a slightly crispy texture was attained from the charred exterior. The flavor resembled the suckling pig you had in tapa bars or in Chinatown, without the crackling skin. Two juicy and plump oysters sitting on an oyster shell tasted oceanic on their own and became mild when eaten with the pork. The slightly warm kimchi consomme was very mild, quite different from I expected from the spicy characteristic of kimchi (and what I would have prefered to give a dish a bit more highlight).
Each element of the dish had its own flavor and when combined, they provided a different taste note. I thought it was a great dish, but at the same time I wasn’t wow’ed because the taste was a bit familiar. Texture-wise, I probably would have liked it more if the crackling skins were present (Did they use them all for the pork rinds?). But that was just my personal preference.
5. Sous-vided Egg with Paddlefish Caviar, Sweet Onion, Crispy Fingerling Potato Chips, Herbs of Chervils
The dinner reached its climax with this ethereal dish, my favorite of the night. The egg was sous-vided to the consistency of a perfectly soft-boiled egg with the silky egg yolk running out like lava. The chef used a knife to slit open the egg before topping it with caviar to create a dramatic presentation. The paddlefish caviar was quite mild and certainly didn’t have any “fishy” taste. Rather, its savory flavor was perfect with the velvety yolk, providing a pleasant sense of taste and texture. I forgot to ask what kind of egg it was, but I did ask the chef how he cooked the onions so that they came out SO sweet and tender. Oh, it was just slowing sweating the onion with butter and constantly adding water. Yes, the simplest at its best.
The tiny potato chips were probably the best chips I had tasted. Crispy without the slightest greasiness, the chips enhanced the dish by providing an invigorating crunch to the dish, the texture that I was looking for in the pork belly dish. The herb, which I first misinterpreted as cilantro, was chervils which tasted like a combination of well, cilantro and parsley.
This dish scored extremely high for me due to my genuine love of egg dishes and its perfect execution in presentation, texture, and flavor. I want to have a bowl of this dish every day for my breakfast!
(side note: In Ruth Reichl’s review, the caviar was Osetra caviar. Mine was from paddlefish...)
6.Seared Scallops and Manila Clams, Bacon Dashi, Pickled Fennel, Sea Beans, Dried Nori, and Puree of Black Trumpet
The presentation reminded me of the sea trout sashimi dish with dill puree at Jean Georges with its stroke of trumpet puree on side of the bowl. Two plump and succulent jumbo scallops were complemented with a flavorful bacon dashi which screamed “pork” to me. I loved the dashi by itself, but didn’t like it once it was muddled with the nori and the puree. The scallops were very sweet, but they were not particularly new or exciting to me as you can find sweet scallops in a lot of fine restaurants these days, especially with my frequent visits to sushi restaurants. (That’s said, they were still really good).
The sea beam added a palatable savory taste to complement the sweetness of the seafood and the smokiness of the broth. Overall, this dish was good but didn’t excite me like other dishes.
7. Shaved Foie Gras, Lychee, Pine Nut Brittles, and Grape Wine Gelee
Certainly a brand new approach to foie gras, this decadent ingredient was completely transformed in appearance and texture in this dish. The frozen foie gras was shaved on top of layers of grape wine gelee, pine nut brittles, and lychees. So, the big question was, how did it taste AND feel like?
While the dish was very intriguing visually, the taste was actually not too different from your normal foie gras mousse or pate, and if I were to say, actually less intense. The mouth feel was also very mild as the minute you put the shaving into your mouth, it melted into a velvety texture like a smear of foie gras pate (and as the shaving sat longer in the bowl, you would find it becoming pate/butter-like). You can probably think of the texture as shaved parmesan cheese on your pasta, which melted in your mouth and your dish. The pine nut brittles were extremely delicious and was the star of me in this dish. The wine gelee was as close to the wine gelee served with the foie gras brulee at Jean Georges as it could be.
Lastly, the lychees, one of my favorite fruits, was the failing component for me. I think it might not have been their problem, but having grew up with fresh and intensely sweet lychees, the tiny lychees in this dish was unappealing. They resembled the ones you got with syrup in a can in Chinatown, with both the natural sweetness and juicy mouth feel of the translucent flesh completely lost. I rather had some sort of fruits that were in season to go with the dish than these lychees. Then again, the problem might be me because I am used to extremely fresh ones.
Overall, while I still prefer my foie gras to be served in the more traditional way, I enjoyed this dish and I applauded their creativity in finding a new approach to foie gras.
8. Deep-fried Short Ribs, Daikon with Mustard Seeds, Grilled Scallions, Pickled Carrots
Deep frying short ribs was a courageous approach by Ko. It might sound too heavy at first, but it wasn’t. The flavor of the short ribs was EXTREMELY intense, bursting with “beef” flavor. I wasn’t sure what they did to the beef or what kind of beef they used, but there was a noticeable concentration of meaty taste in the beef that I didn’t find in other beef I have tried before. I couldn’t see any marbling in the meat. I think the fat was probably caramelized in the deep frying process which provided a hidden sweetness to the meat. However, while the inside was perfectly cooked with a vibrant pinkish red color, the outside was too “burnt” and was very dry. The deep frying was supposed to provide a crispy exterior, but mine was too burnt and stringy and too tough too chew. It might have been just my piece of beef, as I saw that most of diners happily savoring every single bite of the meat without anything left on their plates.
The daikon served with the dish was cooked to fork tender, soft to the point that it didn’t required any chewing. The mustard seeds were a bit assertive to me, but that’s just because I wasn’t a big fan of mustard to begin with. The picked vegetables provided just the right amount of acidity to cut through the meat dish.
9. Grilled Rice “Cake”, Pickled Vegetables, Miso Soup
This was the last savory dish of the night, and it was a familiar closing for me as I liked to finish off with grilled onigiri in izakayas. Unfortunately it was also my familiarity of this ending that made this dish the weakest among all. The rice was rolled into a tiny log, grilled to provide a nice char outside, and topped with sprinkle of nori.
The rice wasn’t anything special and certainly didn’t standout in other rice that I had tried. The pickled vegetables were the same as the ones that you could order in the Ssam Bar. The miso soup was also very traditional but average in taste. Overall, every component of this dish was ordinary, and the execution was average.
10. Pre-Dessert: Pineapple Sorbet with Candied Pineapple
This sorbet was a good way to cleanse our palate after the savory courses. Again, I didn’t find either the sorbet or the candied pineapple to be extraordinary. They were good, just not exceptional. However, the diner sitting next to me couldn’t stop raving to the chef how good this sorbet tasted, and that had me puzzled. For me, it was an enjoying dish, but nothing memorable per se.
11. Deep Fried Apple Pie, Sour Cream Ice Cream, Miso Sauce
An upscale version of the deep fried apple pies that I often had in the McDonald’s in Japan and Hong Kong, this dessert was a delightful finish to the meal. The cold sour (cream?) ice cream created a toothsome harmony with the warm apple filling oozing out of the pie crust. The miso sauce provided the extra layer of savory flavor to the dish, something that I found to be not necessarily important, but it didn’t hurt either.
The 2 hour dinner finally came to an end. Overall I enjoyed my first meal at Ko. The dishes mostly ranged from good to great, with the climax of the egg and beef dishes as the most memorable. However, there were something lacking. Perhaps from David Chang & Co., I would to love see more unusual ingredients and more aggressive flavors. Ko seemed to take a relatively mild approach to flavors as compared to the sister restaurants, and I wasn’t wowed by the flavors for the most part.
On the other hand, I did see a lot of new approaches in textures and appearance (e.g. the shaved foie gras), as well as cooking techniques. The experience was also enhanced by the open kitchen and it was great to be able to see the 3 chefs in actions to prepare the dishes right in front of you. The swift moments, the enchanting knife skills, the interactive dialogues with the chefs, and the efficient moves of the staff all contributed to positive sides of this dining experience. If I could keep my kitchen half as clean as they did while they cooked, my mom would have been praising me for months.
I asked the chef how often they would change their tasting menu, and he wasn’t sure either as they just opened. I believe I will wait a bit before I visit Ko again, probably after they change some dishes in the tasting menu.