Lunch With Steven Shaw at Ippudo & Momofuku Milk Bar

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On October 3rd, 2003, I shared my very first piece of food writing ever on a forum called eGullet. The post was called Charlie Trotter Superdud and it set off a storm of comments from hundreds of subscribers, some of whom were well known entities in the food world (Anthony Bourdain among them.)

After that happened, my friends told me I should start a food blog and that’s why this blog exists. So it’s quite clear that I owe something to eGullet and, more specifically, to its creator Steven Shaw. And yet we’d never met or had any contact until, years later, I met him at an offal tasting dinner at the Astor Center. Then we became Facebook friends. And, most recently, we met for lunch to talk about his new book, Asian Dining Rules.

Naturally, I suggested we meet at an Asian restaurant and he came up with Ippudo on 4th Ave. and 10th Street.

Steven was waiting outside when I showed up on a cold, cold day and we shook hands and headed inside.

The night before, I read through much of his book which is an entertaining, informative guide, replete with stories and tips about everything from sushi (“There are two types of people eating sushi at a Japanese restaurant: those at the sushi bar, and the tourists”) to the “dangers” of MSG (“The United States Food and Drug Administration has been studying MSG since the 1950s and has never found any evidence to indicate that it causes harm.”)

I remembered the bit about eating at the bar when he asked the hostess if we could eat at the bar; for some reason she said “no” (maybe the bar’s not open at lunch?) so we were led to a table. I joked that at least now I knew Steven didn’t ghostwrite his book, he really wrote it.

Steven Shaw is certainly a fount of information. He told me about Japanese ramen noodles, the new craze for it, the story of Ippudo and its other locations. Looking at the menu, he explained that there wasn’t a huge difference between the classic ramen and the modern ramen. When the waitress came he ordered the classic and I ordered the modern.

He ordered it as a lunch special which came with a rice dish of your choice; he chose rice topped with pork. I asked him about the rice with the grated yam on top. “It’s really slimy and I don’t like it,” he said. I ignored him and ordered it anyway.

Friends, never ignore the author of “Asian Dining Rules” when he gives you advice about grated yam. It is SLIMY and pretty gross:

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But the ramen, was fantastic:

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On a cold day, I think there are few foods I’d rather eat. A bowl of steaming broth with lots of goodies to stir around and discover; the pork was meltingly tender and fatty (in a good way); the broth was rich, rich, rich and packed with flavor. And the noodles were, well, noodles but pleasant to slurp in the company of an expert slurper.

Our conversation took many turns–we talked about books, about publishing, about blogs and the future of media–and then, like good eaters, we talked about where we’d be eating next.

“Have you been to Momofuku Milk Bar yet?” I asked.

“No, let’s go,” he said instantly.

On the walk over, he told me a hilarious story prompted by the question: “What’s it like learning to drive growing up in Manhattan?” (I should mention here that Steven Shaw grew up in Manhattan.)

The answer to that story could become a major Hollywood screenplay, so I’ll let Steven save it for the days when food writing stops paying the bills.

Momofuku Milk Bar is the newest venture of wunderkind David Chang. I love David Chang’s restaurants, I love his food, and I love dessert. So imagine my excitement that Momofuku Milk Bar is a David Chang dessert joint.

At the counter, I asked the woman working there what we should get and she had a quick and direct answer: “Banana cake.”

“I’ll take three pieces of banana cake to go,” said Steven and I thought: “Boy he must really be hungry” but he said it was for the meeting he was about to have at the Astor Center.

So we ordered another slice to try then and there and we also asked her what her favorite cookie was and she said the blueberry cream and we ordered one of those too.

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Ok, first the bad news: I didn’t love the cookie. I thought it was well made, the texture was nice, but it didn’t wow me.

Now the good news: that banana cake was so mind-numbingly good, it hurts to even think about it. It hurts because I’m not eating it right now and I want always to be eating it. How to even describe it? The cake layer had a texture that was fluffy and rich but fluffy and rich in a combination you’ve never experienced fluffy and rich before; and the icing was nuanced and complex, the banana prominent and then the chocolate prominent too. It’s a cake to be reckoned with.

Soon Steven was on his way and I was on my way, but we’d eaten well and I’d met an important figure in my food writing genesis. Definitely go buy his book and then eat some noodles at Ippudo chased by banana cake at Momofuku Milk–a cake so good, it should become it’s own Asian Dining Rule: must eat always.

15 comments

  1. Ok before this post I kind of wanted to go to Momofuku Milk Bar–now I am on a mission for that banana cake! It sounds amazing–thanks for the report!

  2. i’ve had that lunch special with the pork on rice. it’s like paying $3 dollars for a bowl of white rice with two little bits of pork on top. the ramen is good though, but everything is expensive there so $3 for white rice shouldn’t have surprised me so much.

  3. I love that you didn’t heed his advice and went for the grated yam. You’ve come a long way!! :)

    I checked out Momofuku Milk Bar & Bakery last night — had the Volcano, pork buns, pistachio cake, samples of 3 soft serves (salty pistachio-interesting, brownie – decadent, snickerdoodle- addictive), and a peanut butter cookie. Pork buns were amazing, as they are at Momofuku Noodle, Volcanoes were tasty, but seemed overcooked and could’ve used more bacon IMHO, and the pistachio cake was UNBELIEVABLE — I want to try the banana cake now and you have to try the pistachio cake! SO. GOOD.

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed by the peanut butter cookie either. It weighed about 10 lbs., the flavor wasn’t all there, and worst of all, I wrapped it in a napkin and put it in my favorite new leather purse and the grease from the damn thing soaked through and RUINED my bag!! Needless to say, I hate that cookie now.

  4. Adam I’ve got to know, did you ever go back to Charlie Trotter’s? I just read through the first page or so of comments from that original post, and just curious what you think 5 years later. I’m definitely on your side, so I’m just wondering if you look back on that experience with a different viewpoint.

  5. You’re quite a writer, Adam. And this proves you have been for a while.

    Picking through, I especially like Anthony Bourdain’s response – it’s everything that’s admirable about him condensed into three sentences.

  6. Read that old e-Gullet post and got a kick out of it. One of the interesting points that came out of that whole thread was the idea that some restaurants (the ‘Ulysses’) are probably better enjoyed after you’ve first experienced after you’ve first learned to appreciate fine, but somewhat simpler fare (the “To Kill a Mockingbird.”) So here’s a question for Adam and the other readers–what are some of the good restaurants for an aspiring amateur gourmet to get a start?

  7. I recently discovered this blog (well, all food blogs, to be honest) and had to go read your old eGullet post.

    I hope you get as much of a laugh as I do out of the fact that you’ve ended up an official food writer. Some of the eGullet responses were so snobby they made my stomach turn. I find particular irony in the posters who snottily declared that THEY didn’t find you funny, or that there was no audience for your particular brand of review (or is it a review? Can someone write a review if they are young/inexperienced/trying to also enjoy the presence of a dining companion?)

    So thank you for continuing. I also learned what a Bellini is.

  8. Having been to The Milk Bar twice and having had about 10 of their items (I shared with a friend — really I did) I can say that it is very hit and miss.

    That said, the misses are still delicious. They’re only misses because the “hits” are so good as to make your eyes spin in their sockets and your heart to skip a beat.

    Yes. Adam is not exaggerating. It’s that good. For me it wasn’t banana cake, it was the “trash can” cookie. Or maybe it’s “garbage can”? Who knows. Time stopped after the first bite.

    Peter Steinberg

    http://www.FlashlightWorthyBooks.com

    Recommending books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime. ;)

  9. Oh I’m dying of jealousy! I just moved back to the US a few months ago from Japan and there was an Ippudo really close to our apartment. It was one of my favorite places to go for ramen. I loved being able to add as much fresh garlic as I wanted (though my husband probably wished they would take it away since he had to smell me afterwards). Yeah, the grated mountain yam on rice is something that foreigners don’t usually like at first. It has really grown on me though!

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