Once we had decided to make a trip to New York, it was time to start researching for the most important part of all our holidays: where to eat some of the best food the destination has to offer. And while NYC has some famous starred restaurants, we thought we'll try something a bit different from the typical French or Modern European fare that we've sampled in London and San Sebastian...
So the only restaurant reservation we made for our four nights in NYC is at Momofuku Ko. David Chang is building a mini-empire of eateries (more about some of the others in upcoming posts) but Ko is possibly the jewel in his chain with two Michelin stars for the past three years. The PigPig has already bought David's cookbook, strongly influenced by his Korean heritage with a fair bit of Japanese touched, and we tried his ramen and steak recipes and loved them.
The PITA reservation system...
In fact, while this was the only reservation we made for the entire trip, it was one of the hardest. Bookings only open exactly one week before the date of booking at 10 a.m. EST sharp and only online reservations are taken. Register for an account in their system beforehand and we recommend having all your details and credit card details prepared in a separate file, ready to copy and paste into your Internet browser. Also, you will need an extremely fast internet connection. Even with that, we could only get a 9.50 p.m. slot as they disappear within literally seconds. Oh also to make it more exciting, there's a clock counting down for you to enter the details (about 2 minutes IIRC).
Why so hard to get a reservation? There's only about 12-13 covers in the restaurant. The seatings are bar stools arranged around a counter where you can enjoy watching the skills of the chefs preparing the dishes. Watching them was a bit like Iron Chef as you're guessing not only the dish but the ingredients going into it. There's also no menu although the chefs will talk you through the dish upon serving.
Worst of all: NO pictures! Some bloggers have taken to sketching out the dish but neither of us are talented enough. Unfortunately this means you'll have to try to imagine the plates.
Now, the food...
The trio of amuse bouche was chicharrón (pork crackling) seasoned with shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice powder) - very light, crisp and tasty; tuna tartar with cucumber and yuzu and a tomato; basil and bacon combo. While none of them were stunning, each of them were lightly flavoured and not overpowering so it was a good warm up for the palate.
The first course proper was almost like a sashimi dish using kampachi; the chef explained it was the belly of baby hamachi or yellow tail which he preferred as it was fattier than the adult. On and around the thin slices of fish were little shavings of bacon, pineapple and radish as well as some dots of basil seeds. It was a very well balanced dish as the flavour of the fatty fish was still evident but melded with the salty and sweet bacon and pineapple and still felt fresh thanks to the basil seeds.
Next up was a tartar made from madai (I think, according to the chef, it's a type of sea bream) with some mustard seeds and shiso mixed in. The tartar itself was well flavoured and the mustard seeds gave it a mild zing similar to wasabi while the cucumber added a little crunch. The PigPig preferred this course compared to the previous but I think the flavour of the fish was a little lost in this admittedly delicious creation.
For the hot summer, a cold soup made from dashi was the next course. Scattered around the bowl was a slice of ham (to mimic a naruto I think), some uni (sea urchin), shiso, microleaves and peas. The peas were displayed as three peas in an opened pod; the trick here was that the peas were in fact little balls of honeydew, which was a nice touch as it gave a little sweetness to the soup. The dashi itself was very light and easy to drink but filled with umami goodness. Hidden within the leaves was a dot of something spicy (wasabi I think).
The next course was one of their signature dishes and one of the mist stunning egg dishes we've ever had. A smoked soft boiled egg was the centrepiece, expertly sliced down the middle by the chef to expose but not split the yolk. The egg itself was great, a testament to the simple beauty of a soft boiled egg done perfectly, but brought up a notch due to the slight smokiness of it and seasoned with some smoked salt.
However, there is more: under the egg was some sautéed onions, into the cleft of the sliced egg was a generous dollop of caviar, to the side were some crunchy potato chips and herbs (we think coriander and chives) and a little splash of sweet potato vinegar around it all. As in the earlier kampachi dish, I thought this was brilliant as all the components on the plate harmonised together to bring about a deliciously rich blend of flavours that still has a nice fresh feeling and a little bit of a crunch. Well played Mr Chang, well played.
It was always going to be hard to top the previous plate, but the next dish gives it a pretty good go. A piece of halibut, coated with flour and pan-fried in butter is the main ingredient. Under it is a pepper puree providing some spice while above it was diced shiso and kohlrabi for fresh herbal aroma. Further on top of that was a dollop of charred onion butter for an extra layer of complexity to the dish while some fiddleheads around the plate provided some unique textures (texture was a bit like okra).
From the first course the food was getting better and better but unfortunately the next one was a bit of a let-down. Home made macaroni was quite chewy and while some little cubes of chorizo added some flavour, the diced squid was neither here nor there. Finishing the dish were some peas. While it was actually a tasty dish it didn't feel special and there was a lack of team effort for the ingredients.
It very quickly picked up again though as the next two dishes were nothing short of spectacular. For this next one, imagine if you will, a bowl with some cubes of Riesling jelly inside. Scatter about some pine nut brittle and lychee pieces and this sounds like the making of a great dessert with those sweet elements. Cast aside the notion Of dessert though as the chef then takes out a chunk of foie gras from the freezer and liberally shaves it over a grater on the bowl.
Sounds weird? I thought it did. It may be one of the signature dishes but I had my doubts when I read about it on paper. If you think about it though, the creamy, rich fattiness of foie is almost always paired with a sweet compote of some sort and usually with a liquor as well. So this isn't really that weird after all. In fact, it was absolutely brilliant.
The main course was also the last savoury course and ended on a high. In simple terms it was a piece of deep-fried short ribs with some onions on the side. However, nothing is ever quite that simple. The short rib was marinated for 48 hours in a sauce similar to bulgogi before being thrown into the deep fryer. The meat itself was extremely marbled, juicy and tender and had just enough flavour to be tasty enough to eat on it's own without being too salty.
Around the plate was a variety of different onion-like stuff. The green half of spring onions were very roughly blended and made into a "hash" while the white half was kept separated and sautéed. Some golden chives were also sautéed while some onions were roasted. A tiny handful of pickled red onions were also added for good measure. The variety of onions helped to temper the fattiness of the beef while also providing some good aroma and flavour.
Before dessert was a mouthwash of green tomato sorbet, green tomato cubes and basil. While the slightly tart, slightly sweet acidic tomato flavour worked reasonably well as a palate cleanser, it unfortunately reminded us both of vomit and was a major turn off.
The singular dessert course was a strawberry themed event. In the middle of the plate was a refreshing strawberry sorbet with some strawberries around it. Also present and slightly weird were some strawberry 'concentrates' that had a kind of mushy texture. More interesting were the cold cloudlike coconut sponges and malt biscuits. While not the most spectacular dessert, it was still pretty good.
Altogether, the bill came up to $250. Only the degustation was ordered, we didn't have any aperitifs or wines.
Simply put, most of the courses were brilliantly amazing. What struck me in particular was how well balanced the dishes were with a touch of luxurious richness balanced by fresh herbs and also with some nice crunchiness around. Lastly, plate presentation was also beautiful in a rather simplistic manner, although you would have to see it to appreciate it.
163 1st Avenue (between 10th and 11th street)