Thursday, January 05, 2006

Restaurant 101 New York City Entry #52

In Adam Platt's list of the 101 Best New York Restaurants 2005 in New York magazine, Momofuku concludes the list. Chef David Chang may well have breathed a sigh of relief that a line cook didn't put a little too much salt in Mr. Platt's ramen. Being #102 counts for nothing (being #97 might be almost as bad).

In truth, finding additional customers is not Momofuku's problem, indeed a few more customers might bring the entire enterprise to its knees. I had called to inquire when the restaurant begins to fill up, knowing that reservations were not accepted. I was told (correctly) that we should arrive by 6:30. By 7:00 the doorway was filled, by 7:30 there were clumps of diners milling outside. And this was a weeknight in January.

In the law of supply and demand, a certain equilibrium should develop. At some point these extra customers should decide that the restaurant - as worthy as the food is - is not worth the hassle, and in time, economists suggest - the number of diners should equal the number of seats, unless some queuing system is launched (read: reservations).

A nouveau noodle bar, Momofuku is translated Lucky Peach, although that the name hints at another expression more widely heard on East Village streets. If some restaurants cater to blue-hairs, this is a restaurant that caters to purple and pink-hairs. We were the most seasoned customers by a generation.

As we ate - and we wanted to eat deliberately to appreciate Chang's serious cuisine - I was awash in guilt, noticing the starving, if trendoid, young masses hungrily eying my seat. Granted Momofuku has been designed as a neighborhood noodle bar, but Chang is too large for his current space.

Momofuku may currently be the best value of any restaurant in New York in its ratio of culinary creativity to cost. If the setting lacks the Orientalist fantasy of Spice Market, the cooking at Momofuku transcends their crosstown rival. Despite the conceit of serving original street-food, Chef Chang is ready for a larger canvas. If Chef Chang is still toiling at Momofuku in five years, we will all be the losers. Perhaps his moment is not here yet, but he should be preparing for his culinary bar mitzvah. He should have no reservations about a restaurant with reservations.

Still, one takes restaurants as one gets them - in the case of Momofuku as a cramped space that makes airline seating seem positively spacious. This is a restaurant that could never hire an overweight server and barely could contain an overweight diner. The setting is striking with white oak walls and tables covered; one feels one is dining in a cross between a submarine and a casket.

We began with sauteed baby tat-choi, a bok-choy relative. It was presented in a miso broth perfumed with garlic, onions, and dried chili pepper. As a vegetarian soup it was exquisite. Sheer, but with a sharp punch of chili. Seemingly modest, it was highly satisfying.

We followed this with Momofuku's signature steamed buns with Berkshire pork. As an artistic creation these pork buns outshown any rival in Chinatown; as a matter of taste, they equal the best that Chinatown could offer. My only complaint was an overgenerous smear of its hoisin-like sauce. However, so satisfying was the construction that a chain of bun vendors wandering city streets would surely increase the sum total of the culinary happiness of New Yorkers.

Through the vagaries of ordering, our three main courses turned out to be more similar than expected - each heavy on salt pork and each built on a poached egg. Had we selected better, the saltiness would have been less noticeable, but it is clear that Chef Chang is having a "fling" with smoked meats. Of the three, the most stellar was Yellow Grits and Ruby Red Shrimp with Bacon, Poached Egg, and Scallions. Chef Chang serves grits that are rather watery by Atlanta standards, something of a breakfast stew - but a dish that can be served throughout the day; it is timeless. Neither Southern nor Asian, these grits are a lucky peach of a dish.

The Aged Country Ham and Masa Cakes with Red-Eye Gravy, Poached Egg, and Scallions, also works within - and against - a Southern breakfast grammar. We were tempted to label this South Korean Cuisine. Country ham with red-eye gravy (coffee with bacon grease) is not to everyone's taste. I love it in small doses, but it worked less well after tasting the bacon and grits, even if the masa cakes (a slightly heavier blini) and scallion supplies a quite inscrutable quality.

We selected the Momofuku ramen - noodles, Berkshire pork belly and shoulder, poached egg, and scallions. I admired the broth, although this seemed the least creative of the three dishes. Ramen are such subtle threads that they can be hard to compare. I found these well-made, but not transfomative, and by this time the pork and egg combo was becoming same old, same old. As comfort food, the Momofuku ramen would cure East Village reveling, but I didn't feel that it amounted to destination dining.

As dessert we ordered Kaffir Angel Food Cupcakes, served with nigori and dried cherry jam (the only dessert offered). The angel food was not as ethereal as some specimens, but the combination was good enough in a restaurant where desserts are an afterthought.

The bill for these dishes (with barley tea, nigori sake, and tip) was $37/person, less than the cost of many lesser Manhattan entrees. What's not to like? Chef Chang is master of his domain. But he deserves a change to fly or fall in a restaurant that tests his mettle to produce dishes that will amaze and transfix - a restaurant with aisles. His deft touch with tat-choy, grits, and pork pork pork suggests a chef whose time may be near.

Like the inspired novelist writing successful genre fiction, Chef Chang must decide his next move. Will we look back on these heady Momofuku days as the crucible of a master or a hint of what might have been? In the culinary countdown is Chef Chang satisfied at 101 - Adam Platt's worst best chef - or does he dream of an electric life among the single digits?

Momofuku Noodle Bar
163 First Avenue (at 10th Street)
Manhattan (East Village)

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