When David Chang opened Momofuku Ko in March 2008, he took the blueprint for a traditional fine dinging experience and then innovated it into something utterly new and modern. Its novelties are now legendary: a maddening, but egalitarian, web reservation system; a complete absence of waitstaff, opting instead for service by the cooks; intimacy (just 12 - backless - stools around a kitchen counter); and informality. While still retaining some of the familiar vestiges of many high-end restaurants, Chang has ruthlessly deconstructed the pretensions of fine dining, reducing it all down to a single-minded focus on the food. “We wanted it to be the anti-restaurant. That’s all we knew at the beginning,” Chang explains in his excellent cookbook, Momofuku.
The transformation of the traditional undergone by Ko is a macrocosm of the transformation that Chang has also effected with the cuisine. Each dish is typically centered around a conventional, traditional ingredient: foie gras, lobster, mushroom ravioli. But then Chang begins refracting them through the prism of a number of different cultures’ cuisines (French, American, Japanese, Korean, Mexican), marrying seemingly incongruous elements and styles in combinations that end up seeming inevitable. The end result is dishes that are astonishing in their creativity and balance and that completely elude classification. Thus, Chang serves house cured foie gras that has been frozen and then shaved over a bed of lychee gelée; a poached Maine lobster with white fungus and forest lobster mushrooms in a mussel and turmeric sauce; and a mushroom ravioli with chives and buckwheat, along with a sidecar of matsutake mushroom tea and French toast with brown butter maple syrup. Chang is paying homage to the traditional, but stretching it, pushing it forward into a new dimension. “We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints that everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions – about how we cook and why we cook with what we do – is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens,” he explains.
The stripped down minimalism of the plywood-covered interior, along with the countertop seating and service by the chefs, evokes the atmosphere of Japan’s great restaurants. Like the interior design, the presentation of the food is also unadorned: “I wanted the food at Ko to look as simple as possible but the ideas and flavors and process that went into the dishes to be as evolved as we could make them.” It is that marriage – of unpretentious simplicity but absolute, unyielding culinary rigor – that has so distinguished Chang’s Momofuku empire.
Restaurants like Ko will not displace their more luxurious haute cuisine counterparts—there is surely a place for coddling and lavishness. But there is also surely room for both types of high-end restaurants in NYC, and the increasing deification of David Chang is not without merit, as Ko is as delicious as it is revolutionary, and any survey of the very finest restaurants in New York would be incomplete without it. Go at lunch, if possible, where the fixed price tasting menu is more extensive than its evening counterpart, and take advantage of the opportunity for communion with the cooks.
163 First Ave.
New York (nr. 10th St.)
212-228-7293 Mon-Thu, 6:50pm-10pm; Fri-Sun, noon-3pm, 6:50pm-10pm
RECOMMENDED DISHES See All
- Souffle with caviar and sour cream
- Sea scallops
- "Dairy-less" New England clam chowder - littleneck clams, shrimp, bay scallops, Andouille sausage and housemade crackers
- Fried cauliflower - fish sauce, lime juice, shiso
- 48-hour short rib - braised daikon, pickled carrot and mustard seeds
- Fried short ribs, grilled bell pepers
- Fish consommé - bean sprouts
- Mushroom ravioli - chives and buckwheat
- Celery root agnolotti - tandoori spice and black truffle
- Sidecar of matsataki mushroom tea and French toast with brown butter maple syrup
- Poached Maine lobster - white fungus, forest lobster mushrooms, mussel and tumeric sauce
- Shaved foie gras, lychee gelée