Before deciding to visit Momofuku Ko, a diner is wise to ask how far he should go for good food.
To start, the restaurant only accepts reservations via their website. Starting from 10am, spots fill up in a matter of seconds. This got pretty frustrating after the first two weeks. I wrote a small python script to automatically find the next available reservation and to book it. Except it didn’t work. In some cases the day opened with no available tables. Other times availability lasted just an instant. In other words, people were clicking so quickly that even automated attempts were stressful and futile. I gave up after a few weeks of trying, until one day, I saw the green check of availability.
To further complicate things, the lower east side restaurant is easy to miss: it looks like a shop with the security gates permanently locked. The entrance is completely encased in a ragged metal mesh which blocks out most daylight, reminiscant of the eletromagnetic mesh cage in which Gene Hackman‘s extremely paranoid character worked in Enemy of the State. It’s fenced up like a prison. It’s very unwelcoming.
The service was laid-back yet distant. It seemed like the staff was playing out a more formal service than perhaps they were accustomed to. The interior was silent and scary. It was as if they secretly hated everyone there; but couldn’t decide just how much right away. The chefs, or at least the one working in front of me, were like David Chang robots. When I asked about the strict no-photo policy, I was hammered with a verbatim recitation of David Chang’s interview with Anthony Bourdain–complete with identical pauses and sighs. His trained response was “it’s just food … [pause to build suspense] … man.”
In spite of David Chang’s intense disdain, I wrote down notes about what I was eating. The maitre’d sneered at me throughout the meal. I felt like I was doing something wrong for wanting to remember my meal accurately. I didn’t even think about asking for a printed menu after seeing the intense dislike directed towards a guy a few seats down from me asking questions.
However, despite the serious service problems, and overwhelming feelings of coldness and discomfort, the 19-course tasting was overall delicious, filled with bursts of genius.
Crayfish arancino: a baked rice ball coated with breadcrumbs and filled with chunks of crayfish. This was served warm, like an Italian gougère. It could have used a pinch more salt. I was so worried this would burn my mouth, but it was just the right temperature.
Pomme soufflé, crème fraîche, hackleback caviar: a miniature cylindrical tube of pomme soufflé filled with crème fraîche and topped with caviar. The caviar acted as the salting element, combining earth and sea, making this a very balanced bite.
Greenmarket radish, salted butter: a mid-sized mild radish without much burn. The butter was on the sweeter side. In general I prefer saltier, stronger tasting butters like Beurre de Bordier served at l’Arpège or Manresa, so I wasn’t crazy about this one.
Island Creek oyster, hackleback caviar, lime, chive: this was served sashimi-style on a cube of packed ice in a wooden stand. Just like at Masa or Urasawa. The lime was generously applied, cutting through much of the brine. Overall this tasted exceptionally fresh and clean.
Kanpachi, lemon jam, white soy sauce, daikon sprout: the freshness of the amberjack was apparent immediately by the crunchy texture with a subtle sweetness. The lemon jam was used very sparingly adding just a hint of acidity and brightness to the fish.
Long Island fluke, tobanjyan, picked scallion, chive blossom, suba stem, two-year-aged soy sauce: at first this dish sounded overly complicated; but the combinations of sweet, salty, and spicy all came together really well with the fresh fish, providing a generous range of textures. The slightly fermeted chili sauce on here added a level of complexity.
Diver scallop, meyer lemon juice & zest, freeze-dried soy sauce, shiso, watermelon radish: a chunky diver scallop salted by coarse flakes of dehydrated soy sauce. The meyer lemon brightened the entire dish, particularly the crunchy slices of water-laden radish cubes. This provided an overall fantastic aroma and flavor making it my hands-down favorite dish of the afternoon. This was the last dish served on the block of compressed ice.
Uni, yuba, puffed black rice, horseradish, suba stems: the yuba had a smooth tannic quality that complimented the sweet creaminess of the sea urchin. Small puffs of black rice added textural contrast while a hint of horseradish lifted the sweetness.
Soft-shell crab hand roll, sugar snap peas, XO sauce, kewpie mayonnaise, dried shrimp: a very crunchy crab shell that crunched with each bite. It was pretty spicy. What killed this dish for me was that the hand roll was left sitting on the counter a little too long making the nori soggy. Seaweed surrounding a hand roll has a shelf-life of about 15 seconds. After that the dry seaweed crunch yields to wet sogginess.
Warm sliced octopus, mustard-cured cabbage, sea beans, lime, espelette aioli, buckwheat croquette: the octopus was sliced so thin that it melted on the buckwheat croquette. It developed a fatty texture not unlike lardo.
Puffed egg, Benton’s bacon dashi, kombu soaked in soy sauce, bagel stuffed with bacon-chive cream cheese: this was awful, the least enjoyable dish of the afternoon. It was kind of like a soft wet omelette dumped in a bowl of dashi. The fluffy egg began to disintegrate in the broth almost instantly, like the remnants of a breakfast buffet trolly.
Pea soup, housemade soft tofu, morels, bacon salt, radish sprouts: a very soft tofu sitting inside a thin broth of peas. Like the soggy puffed egg above, this was a mix of textures that I didn’t find appealing. The flavor of the pea soup was also bland.
Turbot poached in cherry blossom broth, hackleback caviar, hearts of palm, cucumber, lemongrass oil, swiss chard: a firm nugget of overcooked turbot served in strips that had been rolled before poaching. The fish was a bit under-salted despite the addition of hackleback caviar.
Cannelloni of rabbit leg & liver, rabbit bacon, fennel frond puree, minced fennel, pork cheek sauce: I liked how the licorice flavor from the fennel brought out the sweetness of the rabbit leg. However the pasta became spongy very quickly, perhaps from a second cooking in the fennel frond puree.
Shaved foie gras, lychee, pine nut brittle, riesling gelee: this was a brilliant dish, turning the foie gras into a creamy accompaniment that lasted as long as each bite on the plate. The frozen foie gras melted in my mouth like snow. The saltiness of the shaved liver with sweetness of the lychee swirled together in balance. This is a recipe I will certainly be trying at home, although the idea of shaving frozen foie gras gives me chills.
Long Island duck stuffed under the skin with vadouvan-spiced duck sausage, grilled rice & baby leeks, cassis & vadouvan sauce: this was excellent. The duck was uniformly soft and juicy crowned with a thin crispy layer of fat. The meat itself was somehow lean but not dry at all.
Manchester cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm, compressed pineapple, pistachio praliné, ground pistachio: the sweetness of the pineapple overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the cheese making the entire dish too sweet. I did like the crunch from the chunks of candied pistachio, but the cheese was almost an afterthought.
Parsnip ice cream, grapefruit, hazelnut nougat, fudge: the frozen nougat had an elastic texture that was both chewy and crunchy at once. It tasted like the grapefruit had been soaked in sugar water as it had no bitterness. Overall, a nice dessert.
Arnold Palmer sorbet, ice tea gelée, lemon cake crumble: A tart sorbet sitting atop a crunchy lemon cake. The ice tea gelée had a surprisingly crunchy texture as well.
My take-home gift was a small jar of pickled carrots and radish that made a surprisingly nice snack later that night.
Of all the Momofuku restaurants this is certainly the most refined, rife with bold and innovative flavors. A little tweaking of the menu could lift some of the roller coaster lows making the tasting even stronger. Based on food alone, this is probably the most interesting restaurant in the city right now. It sort of hurts to say that since the service and atmosphere is just terrible; but it’s the truth.
So while I probably won’t return, that doesn’t mean that Ko doesn’t warrant a first-time visit. Just leave your camera at home, and bring a lot of patience.