I finally got to have a dinner at Momofuku Ko Monday night. I'd been trying to get a reservation for two there for quite a while, and I finally resigned myself to a solo dining experience.
I’d been in the space before, when it was the original Momofuku Noodle Bar. I’d forgotten how small it is. Most of the 12 seats are between the kitchen and the back wall, and there might be 24” between you and the wall. So... it’s a little tight, but it’s not uncomfortable. The music is unconventional for a restaurant, and if you hated the music you may find it too loud. Since I was by myself and not deep in conversation with anyone, I thought it was fine. Yeah, they played Led Zeppelin, Violent Femmes, AC/DC. It was a lot of album-oriented classic rock from the 70s and 80s. The thing I was wondering about but neglected to ask; do they play the same music night after night, seating after seating? That would certainly drive me crazy if I worked there, no matter how much I liked it.
I opted not to do the wine pairings with each course. They have three options delineated by price. You could spend $50 extra, $85 extra or $150 extra depending on how snooty you want your beverages to be. I didn’t do it partially because I didn’t feel like spending the extra money, but mostly because I just didn’t want to drink that much; not on a Monday, and really—not by myself. (I usually reserve that kind of drinking by myself for sitting in a darkened room rocking back and forth curled up in a ball in the corner...)
English Muffin with whipped pork fat
Basically, they have a 1” mini-english muffing that they spread whipped pork fat on,then they sear it face down on the griddle. It was pretty rich. It really seems like something one of the chefs dreamed up after hard night out on the town.
This was a 1.5” square piece of pork rind that had been deep fried and then seasoned with (I think) togarashi powder. It was surprisingly light and delicious. It tasted more like popcorn than pork, oddly.
Kanpachi (kampachi?) with burnt onion shoyu butter. some sort of pickled raisin-like fruit.
The fish was seared on each side for probably 10 seconds on a grill, then sliced into four little sashimi-like pieces. So it was 90% raw. The burnt onion shoyu-butter sauce was... wow. Interesting. They sear the onion on the grill, then I guess puree it into a soy-butter mixture. Sweet, rich, salty, yum. The picked fruit (some japanese fruit I can’t remember) was just a little sweet and sour. Plate Licking Temptation #1: I did not succumb.
Pea soup with yuba skin, morels crawfish and daikon shoots
Seriously, I never knew how incredible fresh peas can taste. The very gregarious cook who was working right in front of me asserted that they get them fresh every day and they’ve never been refrigerated... which apparently leaches the flavor. Yuba skin is what forms on tofu when you make it yourself, and it can be used to wrap various things... the effect was the yuba was wrapped around sauteed morel mushroom, and cut into little sections. So it looked like it was maybe a 1” piece of spring roll had been placed in the bottom of the bowl. And there were also butter-sauteed crawfish in there too. The daikon shoots were more ornamental. A little crunch, but didn’t really do a lot for the dish other than look green and springy. Bowl Licking Temptation #2: I did not succumb.
"Smoked water" soft boiled eggs, onion soubise, fingerling chips, hacklebeck caviar
I guess they have “smoked water” these days. I’m not sure what that is. I feel like I probably produced a lot of it back when I was in high school and experimenting with various recreational substances, but one would hope that’s not what they did here. They first soft boiled the eggs, then peeled them, then apparently soaked them in the water. In any event, the smoke flavor wasn’t very pronounced. The egg was appropriately runny and good, the caviar was a nice salty touch and the fingerling potato chips were fun. They were basically little half-inch sized home made potato chips. The dish was Fun without being Wow. Maybe it was a little undersalted for my taste, because I know I like salt/pepper with my eggs. The caviar wasn’t salty enough to carry through everything.
Lasagne - escargot, some sort of mini shiitake japanese mushrooms, sauteed spring greens "roasted" ricotta and whipped ricotta. Dried broccoli rabe flowers.
This was by far the most filling and substantial course. It consisted of two fresh made sheets of pasta, probably about 2” square. Between the two sheets was a mixutre of sauteed escargot and some sort of japanese mushroom... they looked like shiitake mushrooms that had been shrunk to less than half their normal size. Then the spring veggies were on top of the pile. It looked like a mixture of asparagus, scallions, maybe some sort of baby spinach or similar—again sauteed in butter. Then they had dried, crumbly bits of ricotta cheese some of which had clearly been charred somehow. THEN after that they had whipped ricotta cheese that was dispensed with a whipped cream cannister. (must get me some of those NO2 cartridges... ah, misspent youth). The flowers were a nice touch. Not a lot of flavor, but a little crispy and they were sprinkled on top of the spring greens. The whole thing was a study in yellow and green. Plate Licking Temptation #3: I did not succumb.
Caper-brined trout, bacon puree (!!), toasted almonds, pickled baby turnips.
Yes. You read that correctly. Bacon puree. I think they probably cooked it, chopped it up, and then pureed it with some oil rather than bacon fat. It wasn’t as heavy as it sounds. The trout had been brined in caper-water (asked the chef), then grilled. Here’s the problem with this dish though. Between the charred skin of the trout and the toasted almonds, a lot of the dish was leaning towards the bitter side. The pureed bacon itself is genius, but it tended to pull everything a little further in that direction. The pickled baby turnips would have rebalanced it, but there were only two or three of them, and they were whole. So having a little of each in one bite was actually harder than it sounds. My theory on this dish is that it’s a vehicle for the pureed bacon. The pureed bacon will stick around, but the trout won’t. The trouble is that the bacon overwhelmed the trout. It needs a heartier base. Plate Licking Temptation #4: I did not succumb, though very close.
Frozen foie gras "snow," lychee, riesling gelee, pine-nut brittle.
This seems like their signature dish at the moment. It’s really pretty simple. The lychee, jellied riesling and pine-nut brittle could easily be used as the basis for a dessert. They’re light and sweet, and it’s the perfect thing to counteract the super-rich foie gras. I’ll fess up, I’m not a giant fan of foie gras, or any kind of liver really. But this really worked for me. It’s a lot of “snow” too. Maybe about a half cup? The reason it feels almost like a dessert course though is because the foie “snow” has a similar effect of eating powdered chocolate. (c’mon, who didn’t ever have a spoonful of Chocolate Quick as a kid?) After the bitter-leaning course before, this was exactly the opposite. The foie gras was definitely salted a little, so it was still balanced but leaning closer to sweet. Plate Licking Temptation #5: It took all of my energy not to give in.
shortrib – cooked sous vide then deep fried, braised turnip, pickled daikon, grilled scallion, sauce made from turnip braising liquid.
Wow. The short rib was supposedly cooked for 48 hours AT 145 degrees, so all of the collagen and stuff breaks down and it’s incredibly tender, but it never gets above a perfect medium rare all the way thorugh. Then they dunk it in the deep frier for a few minutes to crisp up the outside. So rich. So good. The sauce provided a lot, even though the cook didn’t elaborate on it. She said only “oh, it’s made from the braising liquid for the turnip.” It seemed like a half-sweetened red-wine reduction. The little pieces of pickled daikon radish were bright and sharp and countered the richness of the meat. And again, like almost every dish, it was very well balanced between rich, light, sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This dish was perfect, in my opinion. Plate Licking Temptation #6: I made it this far, so why fail now? I did not succumb.
palate cleanser -- "Arnold Palmer" sorbet.
Who knew Arnold Palmer had a drink named after him? I didn’t. It’s apparently half iced-tea, half lemonade. It was good. It served its purpose. Not much more to say about it.
panna cotta - cereal milk panna cotta, toasted corn flakes, hazelnut bark, avocado.
This had me chuckling the whole time. Remember the mush at the bottom of the cereal bowl? Remember how this mush was actually the ONLY reason you ate cereal to begin with? It tasked like the milk at the end of a bowl of frosted flakes. Literally, I sat there smiling the whole time while I was eating this. They put a nike-swoosh of pureed avocado on the plate, too. Honestly, I’m not sure about this. I like avocado, but in and of itself it doesnt’ have much flavor. It certainly didn’t have enough flavor to compete with the panna cotta. Now, a banana puree, or somethng one might actually put ON cereal... now that would have been pure genius. But as it was, I loved this dessert. The hazelnut bark was good... basically it was a piece of hazelnut flavored chocoate with bits of hazelnut in it. Plate Licking Temptation #7: Okay, well, since this one brought me back to 7 years old, I did do a little finger swipe at the end when no one was looking.
Okay, yeah. It was an indulgence. I didn’t need to go here for dinner. I would have been just as well nourished if I’d gone home and made a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup. But the food was fun. It was all very, very good. Every dish was conscious of the balance between sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It’s not really asian, it’s not self-consciously asian-fusion, it’s certainly not classicaly french. I guess one could only call it New American. There were no flavor combinations that were overtly contrived. Nothing felt like “oh, and now for the compulsory asian element.” Though almost every dish had something european and something asian about it. Once it gets easier to get a seat here, it’s the kind of place you’d go for a special occasion or foodie-date or something like that.
The way it works is they essentially have two staggered seatings a night. I got there at 7, and I was the 2nd to last person to arrive. There were two gentlemen to my right (father and son, I think) who were clearly a couple of courses ahead of me. The seat to my left was the last person to arrive and presumably he had a 7:10 or something. Anyway it’s a pretty clever operation, because I was watching them make the lasagne and the trout for groups who were ahead of me when I sat down. But by the time I was done at 9PM, the neighbor to my left and I had both “caught up” with everyone else. So all 12 of us got our checks at roughly the same time, just as the next wave of Ko-dependents were arriving.
As you can see, Ko is not kosher. It’s not for vegetarians, let alone vegans. It’s not for autocrats. It’s not for people who have opinions about what they want to eat for dinner. It’s not for people who can’t/won’t eat pretty much anything. They DO ask you up front if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies. So presumably they’ll adjust the menu to some extent accordingly, as I’m sure they don’t want to have anyone swell up or stop breathing during dinner. But otherwise you have not a lot of choice. You eat what they give you.
And you will like it.