When I first discovered Momofuku Noodle Bar, the concept bewildered me. A New York ramen restaurant seemed misplaced. How could a low-key Asian street-stall dish be hawked to New York's hipsters at high prices? Very readily, it turns out. And I believe the reason for the smashing (if not immediate) success of Noodle and its later brethren lies in chef/owner David Chang's business savvy: small portions, bar seating, loud music, and food that seems at once exotic and comforting. And despite a well-documented hatred for food photography, which I strongly disagree with when done tactfully (no flash and no pictures of diners), Chang allows such gaucherie at the Noodle Bar which means I can share my most recent experience there. The Noodle Bar is sneaky, offering slightly under-portioned dishes at reasonable prices. Designed to be shared, these small plates add up to cost more than a multi-course tasting menu at one of the city's fancier restaurants. This low barrier of entry provides diners the comfort of being able to spend modestly, while the small-statured dishes create the illusion possibility of having "just a bite." Chang is a polarizing figure, with ardent supporters and adamant enemies, but he is tuned in to what the dining public wants in a way many of his peers can only dream of. When one concept doesn't work, he tries another. Noodle's namesake items might be the least popular thing on the menu, and at Ssäm they aren't even available anymore.
In their place is a formidable range of fare that juxtaposes Korean-influenced Asian exoticism and classic American comfort: pork belly sandwiches, fried chicken with a chili glaze, or roasted fingerling potatoes with miso broth to name a few. For the cultural pioneers, non-fusion dishes like Fukuoka's yatai-influcenced Ramen and ChengDu's cold spicy noodles are always on the menu. Noodle Bar is a highly customizable experience, working well for a quick snack, a full meal, or just a drink and appetizer with a friend... it's always a good idea. Perhaps this is why the Noodle Bar is always so crowded, when other restaurants are struggling.
Aaron was kind enough to secure us a reservation for Momofuku's recently-introduced fried chicken dinner. His efforts involved waking up daily at the crack of 10am and hitting Command+R like his life depended on it to grab a table through the online reservation system. The process is as maddening as that for Ko or the Bo Ssäm at, well, Ssäm. Tables disappear in just seconds. But one lucky morning, a green check popped up among the usual sea of red X's. I've never seen the man move so fast, sprinting to find his credit card and secure the booking.
Ordering that night was fairly simple: fried chicken. In search for dietary equilibrium, however, we ordered a few extra dishes to share amongst the four of us. We started with steamed buns of shiitake mushroom and pork belly. The mushroom was squeaky and juicy, the moisture pouring into the bun with each bite. But I found its flavor a bit too subtle; my guess is its addition on the menu is solely to please vegetarians. The pork buns, however, were exceptional. Sweet hoisin sauce mixed with slightly salty pork, coating the crispy fat in flavor. The welcome addition of scallions helped break up the fatty mouthfeel from this rich cut of pork. The bun here acted like a sponge, soaking up every juice that escaped the meat. These were delicious.
Three additional appetizers made their way to our table, starting with roasted corn, fingerling potatoes, and miso broth. The thick-skinned corn was sweet and light, the scallions and potatoes added for textural contrast. The potatoes also helped to absorb the miso broth. This was my favorite of the three smaller plates. My only complaint is that I had to share it with three other people.
The rice cakes with roasted onions and red chili peppers had a really interesting texture somewhere in-between chewy and crispy, a result of an aggressive pan-frying to finish the cooking process. The first bite was the best because with it came the pronounced contrast between the crispy exterior and sticky-smooth inside. The surface had was slick with hot chili and sweet caramelized onions. I found the pieces to be a little too big, though, leaving the flavor dominated by the rice cake rather than the spicing. They were also quite filling. One piece was enough for me. Aaron seemed quite pleased by my lack of enthusiasm for the dish, however. This has always been one of his favorites here.
The last of the three appetizers was the lightest: heirloom tomatoes with melon, crisped ham, and mint leaves. A combination of sweet and fruity flavors salted by the smoky ham. The tomatoes were particularly sweet. I would have preferred more tomatoes and less melon as the dish only had three split cherry-sized tomatoes and about six times that quantity of melon. Contrary to what the menu promised, this was more of a melon salad with tomatoes.
The highlight of the evening, however, was what we'd all come for. The Momofuku fried chicken: two whole birds, one southern style and one Korean style. The mound of crispy is accompanied by a complete potpourri of fresh long spicy peppers, baby carrots, red ball radishes, bibb lettuce, opal basil and mint. There were also four sauces: ginger-scallion, jalapeño-garlic vinaigrette, hoisin, and chili sauce with a bit of sesame.
The fried chicken was just exceptional -- the most memorable I've ever had. The Southern-style chicken is marinated in buttermilk and battered with Old Bay and cayenne pepper. The skin and seasoning fused together into a thin bread-like crust. The spices, meanwhile, only augmented the juicy flavor of the chicken without dominating it. Like an air-tight wrapping, the batter locked in the moisture, keeping every bite juicy and moist. I kept looking for excuses to eat just crispy exterior, a chicharrón of chicken.
The Korean-style chicken was equally excellent, triple fried and bathed in chili paste. The crust here is less cakey than the southern style; here, the thin crust forms a crackling paper-mâché like surface enveloping the skin. The flavor is mildly sweet and spicy, making a great contrast to the southern-style. Again, not oily in the slightest.
Aside from the well-cooked meat, this dish was incredibly fun to eat. The multiple sauces and herbs provide a near infinite number of possible flavor combinations. Between a table of four, eating this chicken developed into an interactive game of who could find the best way to combine the chicken with the herbs and fresh vegetables inside the most delicious wrapping. I personally liked making small wraps with a shiso leaf, hoisin sauce, and a nub of southern-style chicken. Aaron seemed to favor the Korean style bird, as evidenced by the bone graveyard left on his plate when he was done. I'm not sure what our two friends preferred, honestly; they stopped talking after the first bite.
This was a very special meal, and one I'd definitely like to repeat. The company was lovely and the conversation.... well, there was very little conversation once the crispy birds were on the table. But for fried chicken, this is definitely the place to go. Just click fast. Those green checks are fleeting.