On 12/19/09 I did it – I scored THE hottest reservation in New York City. I was post-call and groggy from a 30-hour shift, I clicked, and there was a little green checkmark for one – the 12:10 seating at Momofuku Ko for lunch on 1/1/10 – what a way to start the year! I was excited – despite having reservations at Per Se, Picholine, and Daniel, tickets to the Rangers game, New Years Eve in New York, the Burton exhibit at MoMA, it was suddenly Ko that I was anticipating most. Having had great meals at Ssam and Noodle on past visits even the fact that no pictures would be allowed didn’t dissuade me, nor did the seemingly excessive price tag – this was a rare opportunity, the ONE lunch serving on the first day of a new decade.
Walking up to the small restaurant – there is no doubt that people who aren’t in the know have no idea what lies behind that door – after wandering Tompkins Square Park and watching the dogs (and unique homeless population) I walked in and was greeted immediately by a thin young man in a ghostbuster’s T-shirt. Handing him my printed confirmation ticket I was led down the small bar where three other persons (a couple and a single) were already seated. Sitting on a hard wooden bench the setting was exactly as many have described – a pair of take-out style chopsticks perched on a bottle cork, a wine glass, a folded napkin, and a small hand-printed list of alcoholic beverages. When I sat I noted Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of playing overhead – I’d heard this song similarly in Milk Bar in May.
Casually pulling out my cell phone to text a buddy and tell him where I was I did snap a couple of pictures – four to be precise – before Chef Serpico emerged from the dish-washing area and stated loudly that no cell-phones were allowed in the restaurant. He later told a man down towards the end of the bar that no pictures were allowed, either. For pictures of the food – well, check google, but the only dish on my menu that is actually pictured is the infamous foie gras.
As others have noted, there are no “servers” at Ko – the three chefs making the dishes are plating the dishes, serving the dishes, and describing the dishes while two young men work the front of the house (checking bags, refilling drinks, changing out silverware) and another man rapidly cleans dishes in the back. While I will fully admit that it was thrilling to watch the dishes come together before me, I was a tad put off by how reluctant the chefs were to re-describe an ingredient, chat with the crowd, or show any emotion – I realize they are quite busy, but it is their choice to be on that stage and people are paying top dollar (and time) to experience their creative talents – if you don’t want to allow pictures of your masterful art, then at least have the courtesy to take praise for it (“we hear that a lot” when the girl next to me praised the Uni dish) and answer the occasional question (as an example, the man next to me inquired about the province of Salmon berry and the chef essentially rolled his eyes and nonchalantly stated “Alaska” – clearly different than at Per se where Chris and I discussed the source of their Americauna Eggs for at least 3 minutes.
Moving on to the food, the differential seat timings made a lot more sense to me as the meal came together – essentially 4 persons were served at a time in a rotating fashion so that those of us in the first sitting were getting dish 3 while the second seating was starting on dish 1 – and each chef composed different aspects of different dishes uniformly. To begin the meal, prepared by the most youthful and slender chef (and the only one with ANY personality) we were presented with a Parsnip Terrine with White Miso and Charred Bean Sprouts. Served in a squared spoon the terrine itself was mild and tasted exactly like an earthy parsnip. Surrounding the terrine was a creamy and salty piso with a texture like panna cotta. Crispy bean sprouts topped the one bite dish adding a textural component and the light dish was actually a very nice way to start.
Dish two, entitled Pommes Souffle with Hackleback Caviar and Leek/Sourcream filling was clearly Ko’s take on a traditional caviar presentation – albeit quite minimal in size. A single hollowed-out crispy French fry was presented with a dollop of salty caviar on one end and the other end sliced off and piped full of pungent sour cream. Tasty, but a mere bite – smaller than any single dish at even Alinea, actually.
Dish three was another single bite and was presented by the third server (a young cook receiving extensive instruction from “Serpico” throughout the meal.) Called Duck Leg Terrine with Burnt Mustard and Salmon Berry I actually did not fancy this dish at all as the duck was a nice compressed texture but the combination of burnt mustard and salmon berry gave it a very gamy and unrefined taste.
Dish four marked the last of single bit dishes and was presented by Chef Serpico on a bed of ice filling a wooden box. Called Shigoku oyster with Herb Vinegar and Sunflower Seed I have to admit I was a tad hesitant – I don’t like raw oysters all that much. Smelling the dish first and then sucking the fresh bivalve from the shell I must say I was impressed. Briny as expected the heavily accented vinegar (I asked what the herbs were and was told “it’s a blend”) managed to temper the oyster quite nicely while the salty sunflower seeds added some crunch.
Dish five – a dish that the head chef had been working on since I took a seat, was a tasting of raw seafoods - Medai with Crispy Scales + Chives + White Soy, Kombu cured Fluke with Water Chestnut and Shiso Flower, and Diver Scallop with Buttermilk + Chives + Poppyseeds, Mackerel with Yuzu + Masago + Shallots. Arranged in order of lightest to heaviest fish flavor and instructed to be eaten in that order for an “ideal” experience I followed along, though I wanted to eat the Mackerel as I assumed it’d be the least inspiring. Beginning first with the Medai, my second favorite of the group – smooth and well accented by the chive/soy I quite liked the crispy scales shaved over it. Second, the Fluke – too many mild flavors, it literally tasted like the water chestnut more than anything else. Third, the scallop – wonderful. Completely raw and well complimented by the bitter buttermilk and crunchy poppy seeds, definitely my favorite of the set. Finally, the mackerel – like the version at Per Se the fish was surprisingly mild and the yuzu smoothed out any heaviness that may have been left to linger. The masago (actually masago caviar) nicely added a degree of saltiness that brought everything together.
Taking a break for a trip to the bathroom I chuckled at the setup – books ranging from Adria to Keller to Julia Childs to Batali to “the importance of fat” lining a bookshelf above the toilet. Returning to my seat I saw that my group had already been given their next dish and mine was waiting behind the counter. Presented with full title by the friendlier server, dish six was Uni with Puffed Black Rice + House Tofu + Pineapple Dashi, Ama Ebi with Crispy head, and Chutoro Tartare with Tomberry + Shiso + Scallion. One of my absolute favorite dishes of the night there was no “instruction” on how to eat this so I began with the Ebi – succulent and sweet with a crispy head that I believe was salt cured prior to frying. Progressing next to the Uni – a soup served in a bowl with a large spoon – this was either the second or third best taste of the meal as the fruity yet savory broth really brought out the briny sweetness of the fresh urchin (shucked from shell just prior to plating) and the puffed rice added a nice texture – like oyster crackers in soup, almost. The final taste, Chutoro Tartare blended with sweet, savory, and sour – delectable and simply melt-in-the mouth.
Dish Seven followed a bit of a delay as we watched the plating with great anticipation. Entitled Beefcheek Ravioli with Pickled Jalapeno, Cilantro, Trumpet Mushrooms - spicy as one may have guessed, but actually quite nuanced in the manner in which the spices progressed. The first taste in this elaborate plating was the barbeque spices from the smoky and savory beef inside the two ravioli but after this reached the palate the overarching theme of the dish was actually the manner in which the heat of the jalapenos forced the cilantro into the sinuses creating another degree of “heat” without being Buffalo-style-hot wings hot. Very intriguing dish.
Dish eight could have been amazing and should have been great – unfortunately an overcooked egg made it somewhat mundane. Poached Eggwhite with Black Truffle in bacon broth and Bagel with Bacon Scallion Cream Cheese started out looking great – a poached egg in broth with a decent amount of aromatic black truffle shaved tableside – what made the dish lack was that the egg was overcooked and somewhat spongy without the yolk. On asking why no yolk I was told “it would cover up the truffles.” Funny, I thought the bacon broth did that. The “bagel” was actually an eggy roll stuffed with oniony bacon cream cheese – it was quite excellent and paired well with the other half of the dish.
Dish nine, beginning the second half of the menu, reminded me of something I’d had at Moto 366 days earlier – bar food. Featuring Korean Chili Fried Chicken, Fried Mustard Greens with Black Sesame Sauce and White Sesame seeds, and Duck fat Fried Rice – honestly, it tasted like a crispy chicken wing – no more, no less. While the rolled duck fat rice was tasty and unctuous, the show stealer was actually the mustard greens with the bite of the greens tempered beautifully by the salty sesame sauce and a unique texture added by the seeds.
Dish ten was a sort of intermezzo, I guess. Littleneck Clam Dashi with Kombu – pretty straight forward, salty with plenty of brine.
Dish eleven and apparently some of my co-diners were getting full – perhaps the wine pours were heavy, I don’t know. Matusake Mushroom Ravioli with Buckwheat, Coriander, Pine Needles was actually one of the more inspired taste pairings of the day with a single pre-prepared (the night before according to Scarpetta) ravioli that tasted like the very earthiest of mushrooms paired with crispy buckwheat, a mild reduction with strong hints of coriander, and the overarching essence of pine plus whole pine needles from the grill. Quite unique I have to say I really liked this dish and the manner in which a lot of things I’d never think to place together managed to compliment the overall feel of the dish so well.
Finishing strong, dish twelve was an enormous langoustine filleted and served atop a crispy turnip cake and flanked by poached cauliflower florets and crispy (think potato chip) lily bulb slices floating in a creamy miso sauce. Very Japanese in presentation and flavor this was potentially the most attractive dish outside of the beef cheek ravioli and the flavors worked very well together to form a fragrant and sweet dish somewhat akin, oddly, to coconut shrimp but vastly superior.
Dish thirteen – perhaps the most talked about dish in New York for the past couple years – was Lychee, Pinenut Brittle, Riesling Gelee, and Shaved Foie Gras. Expecting great things I was not let down – you really cannot “think” how this dish tastes and feels – like the most unctuous foie gras but also harkening memories of peanut butter and jelly, plus a “built in” wine-pairing with the Riesling. Perhaps not as incredible as Lee’s at TFL or Gras’ at L2O, but the best foie gras prep I’ve tasted in New York.
The final savory of the afternoon was another excellent dish – potentially the best of the meal outside of the foie. Confit Lamb and Pistachio cassoulet topped with panko, sliced lamb neck, matcha peanut butter mayo, salsify was yet another odd combination but essentially featured a center “ring” of cassoulet made with pistachio instead of beans beneath a golden panko “crust.” Topping this were pieces of al dente soft salsify “noodles” and an oily reduction tasting of equal parts peanut butter and green tea while the side of the dish contained a small folded slice of griddled lamb neck – just overlapping the cassoulet.
Moving forward and bridging to the sweets we were next presented with the cheese course – and an excellent one at that. Described as a Comte Puff with Swiss Chard, Golden Raisins, and comte sauce the dish displayed varying colors of the yellow/gold/green spectrum and was actually quite fetching to behold and smell. Taking a bite I was impressed by the creaminess of the comte and the manner in which the raisins sweetened the dish while the chard helped bring forth the nutty flavors of the cheese.
Hoping that the desserts would continue the trend set by dishes 11 through 15 I was rather disappointed when we received neither the cereal milk panna cotta nor the fried apple pie but instead two…odd combinations. No stranger to sweet/savory desserts after Providence, Trotter, Moto, and Alinea I have to say I wasn’t really prepared for what Ko had to offer – the first being Carrot Horseradish Ganache, Sweet Butter Ice Cream, Candied Ginger, and Pie Crust Crumble. Perhaps this dish would have worked if the pie crust or the ice cream had any flavor but in reality they only served to add some contrast of temperature and texture to the over-the-top heat of the horseradish and spice of the ginger.
The second dessert fared a bit better than the first but was again foiled by a subpar cold component. Titled Bitter Orange Sorbet, Earl Grey Cake, Celery, Fudge the overall flavor of this dish was indeed “bitter.” Probably one of the largest celery consumers in the United States I must admit I was excited when I saw this added to the dessert – it worked wonderfully with the mild and buttery cake and deep and heavy fudge. What through the whole dish off, however, was the sugarless sorbet that tasted exactly like a bitter orange – not exactly the kind of flavor you want to finish a meal. Scooping the sorbet to the side I enjoyed the celery/fudge/cake combination but really have no idea what they were thinking. I understand being eclectic – the olive and orange at Providence or the Mustard Granita at Providence – but this just didn’t work.
Dishes collected we were handed the bill - there was no coffee, only single serving espresso, as Jay-Z waxed poetic about selling cocaine overhead. Paying the bill I have to say I didn’t really feed I’d gotten my money’s worth – not when Alinea is putting 21 sublime courses on the table for only $50 more in Chicago and other places in New York provided excellent meals for less – but in total I was glad I’d had the chance to experience the cuisine and watch the chefs at work – that part of Ko is indeed special. My gripes about the picture policy still stand, but I do understand…that said, the surly and snarky attitudes of the chefs, especially Serpico weren’t appreciated – I don’t want to be pampered, but I’d like to be treated better than the kid at McDonalds would treat me and that is regardless of how high end your ingredients are. A final example of the service – after paying the bill a jar of house pickles and a Kimchi rice-cake wrapped in Nori were slid down the bar with a “Thanks for coming.”
Service gripes aside, there are some things that Ko does very well but there are also some dishes that don’t make sense – and I don’t think it is in a “evolving the art of food” way, either. For 17 courses I felt the first 4 would absolutely have served as canapés or amuses at 99% of fine dining establishments and that the mid-point of the meal was quite weak while the desserts were assuredly sub-par. Following a somewhat logical progression from the amuses through the mild fishes to the heavier courses, cheese, and dessert it felt like Ko was trying to be fine dining without fully committing – and perhaps that is Chang’s goal here. For my dining dollar I’d sooner go back to Noodle Bar and order 10-15 items to form my own tasting – though I will admit I quite liked the pork and rice cake which I ate before heading up to ESPNZone to catch the Rose Bowl.