Saturday, October 2, 2010

More Eats: Momofuku Ko

I’m sorry if this is turning into a food blog, but I can’t help writing about the ridiculous meals I’ve been treated to by my wife these past few days. I came out to New York for work, but M’s transformed the trip into one long birthday celebration. (Lucky me!) Given that she’s gone hardcore paleo recently, I’m a little shocked that she’s been willing to splurge on so many cheat meals.

But I got to eat at Momofuku Ko last night, so who’s complaining?

Really -- all credit goes to M. The fact that we even landed reservations as some of these joints wouldn’t have been possible without her. Strange but true: M dials numbers and clicks buttons faster than anyone I know, which comes in handy when trying to secure un-get-able dinner reservations.

(M’s fast fingers have served her well: Starting in her teens, she won so many dial-in radio contests that she was blacklisted by San Francisco’s alt-rock station. But she kept at it for years. Even in the months after our first kid was born, she won concert tickets on two separate occasions -- to see Beck and Green Day.)

So despite: (1) Ko’s first-come-first-served online-only reservations system, (2) the crushing demand, and (3) the fact that there are only 12 seats in the joint, I wasn’t surprised when my wife got four of us into Ko on a Friday night.

I’m damned grateful. I don’t think I’ve ever had a high-end meal that’s been as creative and fun as the one I had at Ko.

More after the jump.

I love, first of all, that Ko's super-casual. No need to dress up -- just throw on a T-shirt. The food's the focus. Everyone sits at the wooden counter, watching the handful of super-skilled Moscot-frame-wearing hipster chefs do EVERYTHING, from prepping to cooking to plating to serving to cleaning. And all in workmanlike silence, pausing only to describe the next course, or to hum along to the Velvet Underground or the Smiths on the stereo.

That doesn't mean the diners are quiet, though - the shaggy-dog atmosphere is loose and not at all hushed. Ko, after all, strives to project an anti-establishment image -- what other four-star place has a bookcase filled with well-worn cookbooks looming above its toilet?

And the food? Every bit as jaw-droppingly good as the stuff on at Per Se or Eleven Madison Park, but the flavor combinations at Ko were by far the most surprising.

We started with 3 small plates: A fennel granita with macerated strawberry and huckleberry; a lemony slice of grilled Japanese eggplant sitting atop a hazelnut paste; and a bite of airy, crunchy chiccharones sprinkled with togarashi.

Next up: two raw courses. First, thin cuts of sushi-grade Long Island fluke, accented with pickled cherry peppers, dots of salty fermented bean paste, and crisp slices of baby ginger bulb. Then, tender beef carpaccio with charred scallions, microgreens, dried flakes of quark cheese, and creamy streaks of horseradish.

One of the chefs then presented us with fatty, crisp pork strap, Kumamoto oysters in the shell, Napa cabbage and white fungus; over this, he poured kimchee consommé. Every bite was amazing; I loved the briny burst of oyster in the tart, warm broth.

Another chef prepared a "Pac-Man" egg: On each plate, he arranged a lightly-smoked soft-boiled egg atop caramelized onions and butternut squash purée, and then cut and pressed the egg slightly to release the yolky goo. Hackleback caviar was dolloped on top, and fingerling potato chips completed the dish. I totally want to make this dish at home.

Then: a bowl of tortellonis stuffed with a paste of Korean chiles and onions, served with lobster mushrooms, deep-fried sweetbreads, and pickled watermelon. Sadly, the bowl was too small for me to fit my head inside; I would have otherwise cleaned it with my tongue.

Next, corn velouté was poured over perfectly-steamed halibut dressed with XO sauce, compressed tomato, and corn tempura. It was sweet and tart and spicy, and at once tender and crunchy.

But it wasn't nearly as awesome as Ko's signature dish: A deep, fluffy pile of frozen foie gras shavings, under which we found sweet chunks of lychee, Riesling gêlée and pine nut brittle. This umami sledgehammer struck every single pleasure center in my brain.

One last savory course: Spice-rubbed Elysian Fields lamb rib with vinegared kohlrabi terrine, coconut oil, and leek "cigarettes" filled with Greek yogurt and chives.

If I had a nit to pick with this meal, it'd have to be with the pre-dessert palate cleanser: onion ice cream float, served in onion soda. On its own, the subtle sweetness of the onion ice cream wouldn't have been bad at all, but I wasn't a fan of the soda. It reminded me of the burst of saliva that gushes into your mouth right before you puke.

I much preferred the actual dessert: Tiny cubes of raw apple and apple gêlée, topped with toasted apple bread, and accompanied by charred applesauce and golden raisin purée. Oh, and oatmeal ice cream dusted with burnt apple powder.

We finished with a little mound of buttermilk gelatin infused with white chocolate and mint, and rolled in powdered corn. Smooth, sweet and slightly sour, it was a very nice end to a very memorable meal.

All too often, four-star dining means eating in stuffy rooms, wearing uncomfortable clothing and trying to hold in a fart. Not at Ko. Watching the chefs work was a huge treat, but being able to eat with our hands and make noise (with our mouths) made this a standout experience -- like crashing a casual dinner at a freakishly talented chef's house.

(Note: I tried my best to recollect the food as accurately as possible under the circumstances. Ko doesn’t have menus -- the chefs just start putting food in front of you -- and no photography is allowed. Thankfully, between the four of us, we managed to piece together just about everything we ate. It helped that halfway through the meal, I ran into the restroom to take notes on what we’d eaten.)

(Photos: roboppy)