Momofuku Ko

February 3, 2009 | By | COMMENTS

IMG_1.JPG

If you live in New York and you’re a food blogger who writes about restaurants, it’s inevitable that, at some point, you must visit and write about Momofuku Ko, David Chang’s most celebrated and impossible-to-get-into restaurant. So many food bloggers, in fact, have visited Ko–among them, The Wandering Eater, Food in Mouth, The Girl Who Ate Everything–that the restaurant now has an official “no pictures” policy. This, I must admit, was a bit of a relief when I surprised Craig on Sunday, taking him there for his birthday; now I wouldn’t have to spend half the meal adjusting the aperture and manually focusing over plates of rapidly cooling food. For great pictures of dinners at Ko, click any of the links above. For a brief account of our time there, click ahead.

So, question 1: how did I snag a reservation?

Well, a week and a day before Craig’s birthday (last Sunday) I logged on at 10 am, the time the Ko reservations site goes live and I clicked and clicked and saw a sea of red X marks and gave up. I decided to make a reservation at another celebrated restaurant (I won’t say which) and that was that. But then on Friday, in the afternoon, on a total whim I clicked on the Ko site, just for the hell of it, and there–on Sunday night at 7:40 PM–was a green check mark. I instantly clicked it, I gave my credit card information and agreed that if we didn’t show up we’d be charged $300. I’d done it: I’d scored a reservation at Momofuku Ko.

I didn’t do a great job of keeping it a secret. I told Craig we were going to dinner at the hardest-to-get-reservation in town, “El Bulli-esque,” I said; and then, when I told him it was in the East Village, he’d figured it all out.

But so what? Not everything has to be a surprise!

Ok, ok, let’s just get to the meat of it. How was it?

The food was every bit as good as you’ve heard, in some cases better. It’s not mad scientist food–it’s not food done just for the sake of doing it; it’s soulful food that’s wildly inventive, it’s food from the heart that takes a journey through the brain yet doesn’t for a second forget its purpose: to delight and dazzle, sure, but also to comfort and please on a deep, deep level. This is cooking at its best.

So what did we eat? We ate homemade chicharrones with Togarashi (pork cracklings with Japanese 7-spice powder); we ate a biscuit that was unlike any biscuit I’ve ever seen or tasted in my life–a towering morsel, buttery and oozing with flavor (it had Mirin on it too)–then a raw scallop with all kinds of unexpected garnishes (like these bright pink dots–I have no idea what they were–that gave the dish acidity as well as heat), an amazing kimchi consommé that took a boring French staple (well, at least boring when I had pallid versions of it on cruise ships with my parents) and electrified it with Korean heat and then amplified it with braised pork belly and a raw oyster to boot (this was one of the night’s best dishes); a beautiful barely cooked egg, broken open, yolk oozing out, topped with caviar and served with cooked onion and fingerling potato chips; then a pasta–this you won’t believe–served with snail sausage and chicken skin (see this proves my point, because that sounds mad-scientisty, but then you taste it and it’s the most comforting thing you could imagine), a perfectly cooked piece of halibut (I forget the garnishes), then the famous shaved foie gras over lychees which deserves all the praise it’s gotten, and–our final savory course–aged fillet of beef, cooked in tons of fat (I watched the chef spoon bucketloads of fat–was it butter?–over the beef while it cooked in the skillet) and served with redemptive vegetables. Finally, dessert: various sorbets and a whimsical funnel cake thrown in for good measure. All in all, it was an electrifyingly good meal, probably one of the best I’ve ever eaten.

With that said, however, here’s my gripe: the service wasn’t just cold, it was downright hostile. I’d ask a question and get icy, confused looks. Like the woman who poured us our wine (we had the $50 wine pairing, which is actually one of the best things about the restaurant: you can choose a wine pairing based on your price range, either $50, $85, or $100; it’s the same amount of wine, just a different quality)–I asked her, in a pretty warm way, why we’d started with a red then moved to a white: “Because the menu is kind of all over the place, so that’s how we pour the wine too.” She wasn’t happily forthcoming: she was irritated.

So, it seemed, were the chefs who–to their credit–were fascinating to watch as they sliced scallops with a really sharp knife or stirred their sauces, salting and tasting as they went. But if you asked them, after they presented a plate, “What was that again? Mirin?” They’d stare at you like you were an idiot and say, “Ya, Mirin” and walk away.

That, to me, is a big factor when you’re paying $100 a pop for dinner plus $50 a pop for wine. I must say that despite the exceptional food, I couldn’t help noticing that the next night–last night, actually–when we went to Franny’s for dinner, the waitress was so warm and genuine, so helpful and engaging and kind, that–for far less money–we left Franny’s happier than we left Momofuku Ko. We had the feeling that at Franny’s they wanted us to be there, they liked having us; at Ko, the attitude was: “you’re lucky to be here. Now eat.”

The sad thing is that the sentiment is true: when you’re at Momofuku Ko, you ARE lucky to be there. You’re eating some of the best food in the country prepared by some of the most talented chefs around in a seat that hundreds, maybe thousands, have been vying for since the reservation system went online. But is that enough? Maybe eating the best food in the country in a hostile atmosphere isn’t as good as eating less good food in a warmer atmosphere? But, then again, where else would I eat pasta with snail sausage and chicken skin? Where else would the consommé be infused with kimchi?

It’s a real Ko-nundrum.

Tags: , , ,

Categories: East Village, Manhattan, New York, Restaurant Reviews

  • MikeyV

    Because of how the economy is know in days, service has become just that much more important… As much as I have been dying to go to KO (whoa!) If I were to walk out of there feeling the way that you have, it would leave me feeling like it wasn’t a good experience, and would probably not recommend it to anyone… Service has a strong effect on the impact an establishment has on me…

    It would be euphoric if all restaurants could figure this out, and just try to do their best to make their customers feel welcome :)

  • ray

    Maybe there’s a certain way you’re supposed to pronounce MomoFUK-U?

  • http://www.mousebouche.blogspot.com A Mouse Bouche

    What a roller coaster of emotions this post was. First I was wildly jealous and excited to some day try my hand at getting a reservation and the next i was annoyed and disappointed for you! what a bummer. I would hate to have to choose between great food and a pleasant and hospitable dining experience. Both are just too important, especially for that price.

  • http://fastfoodiecooks.com Devon

    It is always disappointing when the service and the food are so far out of step. I have definitely been influenced to a positive opinion about a restaurant based on superb service (though never influenced if the food just plain sucked). I think dining experiences like this restaurant should be well rounded and make you fall all over yourself because you couldn’t find much if any flaw. I went to Fleur De Lys in San Francisco and for a table of 4 we dropped nearly $1,000 but the food was amazing, the wine perfectly paired and we had 4-6 servers waiting on us in a way I have never experienced. I don’t think every experience can be like that, but it shouldn’t be hostile!

  • http://fastfoodiecooks.com Devon

    It is always disappointing when the service and the food are so far out of step. I have definitely been influenced to a positive opinion about a restaurant based on superb service (though never influenced if the food just plain sucked). I think dining experiences like this restaurant should be well rounded and make you fall all over yourself because you couldn’t find much if any flaw. I went to Fleur De Lys in San Francisco and for a table of 4 we dropped nearly $1,000 but the food was amazing, the wine perfectly paired and we had 4-6 servers waiting on us in a way I have never experienced. I don’t think every experience can be like that, but it shouldn’t be hostile!

  • Elke

    We also had a wonderful meal at Fleur de Lys — both in the food and the excellent service. They even comped a course of food when the wine pairing arrived after the food!

    On the opposite side of the dining enjoyment and NOT at Fleur de Lys — Over the weekend we went to dinner at a place we’d never been and the service was so bizarre. They acted as if we had never eaten out before. Apparently that’s how they felt okay to let us wait more than one HOUR for our first dish (a salad and foie gras, so no excuses there). Needless to say, we won’t return.

  • http://bring-your-appetite.blogspot.com Jessica @ Bring Your Appetite

    There’s the more business-savvy side of me that says that customer service should always come first, that there is no excuse for poor or indifferent customer service. When you walk into a restaurant, you are paying not just for the food and drink they place in front of you, but for the entire dining experience. The biggest part of that is the service and hospitality you receive. If they fail to deliver quality service, they are just plain ripping you off.

    But then there’s the culinary food-obsessed side of me that says, if the food is that out of this world, who the hell cares about what the service is like? Although I strongly believe that every restaurant has a responsibility to their customers to deliver them good service, I am the kind of person who will remember phenomenal food far longer and more vividly than phenomenal service.

    So I want to say that even if given the opportunity, I wouldn’t go to Momofuku if the service you described is what I can expect. If I’m being totally honest, though, if I was given the opportunity to go, I would, if the food you described is what I can expect!

  • cybercita

    the other thing that is wrong here is that the staff should have been trained enough, as they were at per se, to recognize that you are prominent food writer in the new york area and given you VIP treatment.

    david chang is famous for his temper and his freak outs. obviously the work culture there is influenced by his nature.

  • piccola

    I don’t care if the odds of scoring a reservation are one in a million, once you’re in, you shouldn’t be treated like you’re lucky to be there. If anything, the service should be warm and easy, so you forget the hassle of getting there. Otherwise, given the economy, fewer people will be willing to jump through hoops for a return visit…

  • carey

    Dear Ray,

    I will be forwarding to you the bill for a new keyboard, as mine has diet Coke running through the keys from laughing so hard at your comment.

  • carey

    Dear Ray,

    I will be forwarding to you the bill for a new keyboard, as mine has diet Coke running through the keys from laughing so hard at your comment.

  • Anonymous

    the little pink dots you describe sound to me to be pickled ginger.

  • ray

    Sorry, carey. Only thing that came to mind.

    I have a rollup silicone keyboard I can send you. LOL

  • ray

    Sorry, carey. Only thing that came to mind.

    I have a rollup silicone keyboard I can send you. LOL

  • http://curedmeats.blogspot.com jason molinari

    I had the exact same experience at Ko when asking the chefs questions. They look at you like you’re an idiot and give 1 word answers, as if it were so intuitively obvious that if you had to ask you shouldn’t even be there.

    Really kind of ruined a great meal.

  • http://www.foodinmouth.com/ Danny

    Kinda feels like we get what we paid for… if we get this level of food with great service, then we’d have to pay for the expert servers they hire and such.

    This is an interesting topic though… we all want some cheaper form of haute cuisine but it’s weird because we never expect to go from overly friendly with four star food to a place that’s brusque with four star food.

  • http://www.boscoethecookiedoctor.com Mark Boxshus

    Adam

    While you may have been very lucky to score that reservation, I would have let the powers that be know their staff, attitude and level of service were very sub par. I don’t care how good the food is, I will not put up with arrogance on the part of any staff member. Remember, you are a guest, and should be treated as such. However, if you were dressed inappropriately, acted like a bunch of Yahoos fresh off the turnip truck or had attitude problems of your own, then their “uppity” persona might well be justified.

  • Drew

    I completely agree. I got nothing but very cold responses when I ate there as well. I loved the food but noticed that a good amount of the dishes were finished a bit heavy handed with Fleur de Sel. I love salt, but it was way more noticeable than I thought it should have been.

  • Christine

    Thank you for clarifying just why I won’t be buying into the hype of this restaurant. An earlier comment mentioned that the staff should have known they were dealing with a food writer and treated you better. I say that ALL people should be afforded proper service. They don’t have to act like your best friend, but they shouldn’t be rude.

    I will continue to happily spend my money elsewhere and thank you for your honesty about your experience!

  • http://devourthis.typepad.com/ Jackie

    Great post. I loved hearing your firsthand account about the Ko dishes. I’m still dying to dine there. However, I’m also glad you brought up the issue of the service. I can’t stand the chilly attitudes from waitstaff at higher-end, well-known and revered restaurants. I loved the food and Casa Mono and am dying to return because of it and no thanks to the snooty server.

    All that said, I really think you should try making some kimchi pancakes at home. Have you ever tried them? Sounds strange, but one of the tastiest things ever.

  • http://aneffingfoodie.typepad.com/an_effing_foodie/2009/02/hot-trends-hospitality-and-culinary-skills-gasp.html#more EF @ effingfoodie.com

    UGH.

    I’m not advocating VIP treatment for bloggers–it shouldn’t matter WHO you are. As a guest at a restaurant, plopping down $150 a head, you should be treated with a modicum of hospitality. Period.

    And I’m really proud of you for writing this, for as much as you loved the food.

    When you may for a meal, you’re not just shelling out dough for food, you’re paying for an experience.

    You got $300 of tasty f*ck you. GRRRRRRRRRR.

  • jackson

    funny you’d complain about the service

    as that’s something david chang has (deservedly, IMO) almost deliberately thumbed his nose at.

    personally, had the waitress given me the remark “Because the menu is kind of all over the place, so that’s how we pour the wine too”, I’d have a laugh and run with it as part of the vibe of the place…

    “So much in the late ’90s and this decade was about service and serving mediocre food. I would rather be in an uncomfortable environment serving delicious food,” says Chang. “I remember working at a restaurant, and they told us these statistics that the thing diners care about most was service and second was décor and third was food. And that made me mad. I said, ‘Screw it.’ That was the motto. Screw everything else — just worry about the food.”

    (source: http://74.125.47.132/search?q=cache:kIx7u8kPDmwJ:www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1863290,00.html+momofuku+chicago+frills&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a)

  • http://www.writeplayrepeat.com jules

    Just now catching up on your February entries, and this one is so disappointing.

    I’m really glad you came out and mentioned the bad service, though. For me, the restaurant experience is NEVER only about the food. It’s the food, the wine list, the presentation, the decor, the mood, and absolutely the service.

    I would much rather have a good meal with exceptional service than an exceptional meal with terrible service. Hopefully there are restaurateurs keeping up with your blog and taking notes!