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.