It starts with a reservation. Good luck if you can get one. It’s a gauntlet of you and a website and a clock that inches towards 10:00 am. You’ll need a logon. Your fingers may get trigger-twitchy on the click button. You may feel a little like an action star while staring at a ticking- down clock. To get a seat for dinner David Chang’s kaiseki style, Michelin 2 star Ko bookings open at 10:00 am, seven days ahead.
If you’re like us you also need to stop being precious about any preferences to eat before 8.30 pm.
At 9.45 pm we roll into a small room, behind a girded cast iron door on First Avenue. There’s no obvious name, or signage. There’s just a small picture of a peach to let you know you’re in the right place. This is a photo.
This is the only photo of the meal that follows; because as we soon discovered- they’re not so keen on you taking photos in Momofuku Ko.
A dinner at Momofuku Ko is a little like a blind date with someone who is very sure of themselves. There’s a lot that happens on their terms.
Ko was created to showcase the technique and skills of David Chang and the rest of his team. It sits in the original location of the Momofuku Noodle Bar, but this is certainly not the kind of place that will churn out bowls of ramen for disheveled hoards well into the night. Ko is about Food, with a capital F.
The interior is a little like a pine-gilded shipping container. There are 12 stools- ten hugging one side and two to the other, like a capital L. Everyone sits facing the bar, looking straight at the kitchen. From there you can watch three chefs prepare your food. It’s dark and if you’re nudging 6 foot three, like my companion The Hungry One, the seats aren’t super comfortable.
There are minimal waitstaff- just two to greet you; guide you to your seat; help with beverage pairings and clear your plates. It’s the three chefs who not only prepare your food, but serve it to you. It’s a cracker of a business model- particularly in New York. By serving the food the chefs get around a NYC ordinance that prevents anyone who doesn’t ‘serve’ getting a percentage of tips. Hence, by explaining and helping the food across the pass the chefs get an additional kickback. Unfortunately this doesn’t always result in the most charm filled service.
Here are a couple of things that are worth saying upfront about Momofuku Ko.
It’s loud. The music is ratcheted up to a level where it can be hard to hear the person next to you, let alone clock a description of an obscure dish by a softly spoken chef across a bar. The music also might not be to your taste (depending on how you feel about the occasional interjection of expletive sodden hip hop with your meal).
But that aside, most people will go to Ko for the food. I’ll do my best to describe our meal without visual aids. So here’s why there are no photos. I’m not one of those bloggers who brandishes around a large SLR- but when I pulled out an iphone, with no flash and checked with the waiter if “It would be offensive to take a couple of photos without flash so we could remember the meal- because we were very excited to be here and had travelled from Sydney” I was told with a very straight face; “Yes, it would be offensive”.
Right. I guess it’s good to know where you stand.
Onto the food.
The meal jolts into action with a square of cucumber topped with coriander and pickled mushrooms.
The food at Ko cherry picks flavours from around the world before melding them into some seriously interesting combinations. A nubbin of fluke sashimi is paired with buttermilk, dots of poppy seed and a stain of Sriracha hot sauce ( the Sriracha being a Momofuku mainstay). A carpaccio of beef is blister-skin thin and matched with sorrel, horseradish mayo and black studs of fried garlic. Later on there are lamb ribs as pink as someone’s naughty bits, playing with coriander, cucumber, kolhrabi and baby brussel sprouts.
Along the way there are some dishes that are curious.
Foie gras comes as cold snow. It’s frozen Hudson Valley foie that’s been microplaned into a yawning white bowl. It looks like a fawn mound of sand- something you’d trickle between outstretched fingers on a calm shore line. Underneath there are nuggets of tinned lychee, pinenut toffee and a riesling jelly. It’s a clever combination. You get the flavour of the liver, but without the engorged heft. The nuts have a sticky chew and the sweet riesling jelly almost makes the lychees seem savoury in comparison. Each bite was like an adventure.
A tasting menu is $125 at dinner time and goes for at least two hours. There are beverage pairings (at an extra $95 each) which match most courses. Sometimes they’re inspired- like the spiced ale from Coney Island with with a consomme of oyster, pork belly, cabbage and kimchi. The ale tasted like Christmas, with a drop kick of ginger that cut through the fat that floated through the soup.
And sometimes they’re disjointed. You might start with a white wine, go to a red, then to sake and then back to white. It’s a hectic way to drink and it can get a little exhausting. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the pours are generous, so if you’re not careful it can get a little overwhelming (in many respects).
But back to the food. Some dishes are curious. And then there is the occasional dish where everything else fades, and you could swear inside your head you hear angels sing.
I rated Momofuku Ko’s smoked poached egg as one of the ten best things I ate last year. I think it’s almost one of the best dishes I’ve ever put in my mouth. It’s certainly the only thing that’s made me remark I could ‘tongue kiss the plate if I could’. But that might have had something to do with the generosity of the wine pours (see above).
At the base there’s an onion soubise which is sweet and soft. On top is a smoked gently poached smoked egg, split and cascading gooey yolk. In the crevice there’s a generous whack of caviar for a luxurious and salty ping, micro herbs for relief and a pile of potato chips for crunch. It’s balanced and elegant but has such confidence. The technique in the soft smoked egg is awe inspiring, but the flash of brilliance comes with the potato chips, which are the perfect foil.
Then there are some dishes that go down a dark path from curious towards difficult.
A cheese course near the end of the meal is a foamy camembert mousse. It looked like a snow drift subsiding. With it were needles of samphire, sticking forth like blades of grass. There were pickled cherries and a dark murkiness of Australian truffles. The flavours make your tastebuds prick up like hairs on your arm.
I’m alert, but also a little alarmed. Also along for the ride in this cheese course was a textural gatecrasher in the form of water chestnuts. At this point I hit the wall. I couldn’t finish. Though I manage more than the French girl across the bar who takes a small bite, wrinkles her nose and shakes her head- before pushing it away.
Desserts include a marshmallow dome of sweet buttermilk with mint and corn powder and blueberry mochi cake with baby strawberries and the punch of sesame. They look like little blue fruits but have a texture closer to soggy cement.
The menu we had at Momofuku Ko is a little like the soundtrack that accompanies it. Sometimes it’s smooth and soaring- other times it’s a little jarring and prickly. But at no point is it boring.
My sister once said to me that there are two types of people in the world, people who turn the music up and people who turn the music down.
Momofuku Ko is a place that likes to turn things up.
163 1st Avenue, New York
Lunch Friday – Sunday.
Dinner – everyday