Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hype-free high at Momofuku Ko

By now, there have been many, many posts written about Momofuku Ko, ranging the gamut from utter elation (over the food) to utter frustration (over the maddening reservation system) to utter snarkiness (over possible ko-nniving). As I caught bits and pieces of the madness, and listened to the laments of friends unable to gain a reservation, I shrugged my shoulders and wrote the whole thing off as hype. "Ehhh, there are so many amazing restaurants in this city—why try so hard for this one place?" was my attitude.

But I kept hearing more and more about Ko, and one after another the reviews were coming back full of starry-eyed praise. I went to the site, curious to see how the system worked. Before I knew it I had registered my email address and credit card number, and then I was there with the rest of food-obsessed New York City, clicking away at the refresh button to see what would happen.

I didn't get a seat, of course. Unlike the seemingly blessed VI, who so far has managed to score a reservation not one or two but three times, my initial attempts didn't reward me with any kind of gratification. I clicked onto the site a few times a day for about a week, resigned to being shown a screen of red X's, by the end doing it more out of habit than hope.

But of course there was an end. Just before I left work a few Fridays ago, a text message blinked up on my phone. "Do you want to go to Ko with me tomorrow?" my friend JSK had sent. This was a complete surprise—I had never talked about Ko with him before, and I had no idea he had even been interested in going.

"YES WHEN? I've been trying to get reservations!" I texted back immediately.

"6:30—call you later," he typed in reply, and that was that. We were on.
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The next day, after spending the afternoon being photographed for People (hee hee) and bumming around SoHo—I met a bunch of folks from Mercer Kitchen while I rested on a stoop, which was fun—I joined up with JSK in Union Square to walk over to the restaurant. We confused our destination for the noodle bar at first, but we weren't the only ones; when we entered, a couple ahead of us was also asking where to find Ko. The patient hostess directed all of us further down the block.

Shortly after we got settled and placed our beverage requests, two crisp shards of
housemade chicharrón (essentially fried pork rinds) were set down in front of us. Moments later, two mini english muffins griddled with pork fat and topped with chives appeared as well.

The taste-fest had begun!
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ur second course ("Raw"), consisted of scallops with dehydrated soy sauce and pickled grapes for me, and fluke in a spicy buttermilk sauce with chives and poppy seeds for JSK. I didn't know why I had been given the scallops while JSK received the fluke, but I was grateful, as the scallops were amazing (it wasn't until midway through the meal that I was able to stop thinking about them). Fresh, cool scallop; sweet, jellied grapes; crunchy, salty soy sauce—the textures and flavors were extraordinary in combination. Yes, yes, I gave some to JSK of course—we ended up sharing everything pretty much evenly whenever we received something different—but damn, those scallops were a hard last bite to part with.
As we waited for our third course, we watched the chefs before us at work. This is definitely one of the charms of eating at Momofuku Ko: the ability to observe all the dishes being prepped and plated in front of you. In this case, it was raw oysters. Aw, shucks.
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The oysters made their appearance in our "Soup" course: Berkshire pork belly, oysters, and napa cabbage in kimchi
consommé for JSK; spring pea soup with crawfish and a nugget of yuba-wrapped morels for me. I was getting curious about how the chefs were choosing who was getting what—as we were always respectively addressed as "the lady" and "the gentleman," my best guess is that they offer their lighter dishes to women—but in any case I was supremely happy with my creamy, bright-tasting pea soup. I tried a spoonful of the kimchi consommé, and thought it interesting in concept but ultimately too salty.
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The next course ("Egg") is where my fortune turned and JSK was awarded the better of the two. A smoked egg with caviar over soubise, accompanied by teeny potato chips, was set down in front of him; I was given a chawan mushi with cashews, asparagus, and caviar, drizzled with argan oil. The silky, nutty chawan mushi was great, but despite excellent ingredients still seemed a bit ordinary; meanwhile, the rich, briny smoked egg dish felt both playful and inventive, like breakfast potatoes and eggs gone high-end mad. JSK all but licked his plate clean.
We both got the same thing for "Pasta": an open ravioli of porcini mushrooms and snails topped with asparagus, "toasted ricotta milk," and some kind of foam. I wasn't keen on the chalky texture of the toasted ricotta, but overall it was quite good.
Our "Seafood" course was also the same for both of us, half of a soft-shell crab with "celery noodles" and ramps in an Old Bay broth. After tackling this dish, I'm finally ready to admit that I'm just not a fan of soft-shell crab. I'd told myself for years that the thin-skinned crustacean was the epitome of awesome, ignoring the fact the its sharp casings scraped against my throat and that there wasn't ever enough meat to balance this unpleasantness out; it was the idea of being able to eat an entire crab whole that blinded me to how little I actually enjoyed the experience. As this particular specimen hadn't been fried, the shell was especially tough, and the pool of Old Bay broth was much too salty. This was one of the few dishes I didn't finish entirely.
Next up was the "Foie" course, probably the most acclaimed of all of Ko's offerings, consisting of foie gras shavings over lychee, reisling
gelée, and pine nut brittle. JSK put one spoonful of this concoction into his mouth and didn't say a word. Moments later, he started to giggle in pure delight. I understood his giddiness after I, too, tried a bite, and our joy lasted throughout the rest of the course. Each spoonful melded fluffy, savory, unctuous fat with sweet, cool lychee, fragrant jelly, and a fine shatter of brittle. It was sensational and delicious and eye-opening.
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The "Meat" course was a ramp-filled chicken roulade with baby turnips and zucchini for me, and deep-fried, marinated short rib with braised daikon, grilled ramps, and pickled mustard seed for JSK. You can see from the picture how awesomely fatty the ribs were; that and the sweet, complex marinade made them taste like they might be the best ribs you'll ever have, ever. I was into the pickled mustard seed too, which I'd never encountered before. The roulade was quite good too, but next to the ribs, beef was the clear winner.

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Our "Pre" was a cantaloupe sorbet with cashew butter for JSK and an Arnold Palmer sorbet with dehydrated tea cake for me.
I found the Arnold Palmer too sweet and the bits of tea cake too hard, but the cantaloupe was amazing—the smooth, cool sorbet tasted like the essence of the fruit intensified and went perfectly with the rich, slightly crunchy nut paste.
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And then finally, "Dessert": fried apple pie with sour-cream ice cream and toasted miso paste for JSK; "
cereal milk" panna cotta with corn flakes, chocolate, and avocado cream for me. After all the food that had come before this, my one bite of the pie tasted overwhelmingly heavy (I think it might have been fried in pork fat). I was more into the panna cotta, which was set off nicely by the salty avocado and crunchy corn flakes.

So as you might have guessed, I was really happy with my meal. Ko had definitely lived up to all its hype, and while I usually don't splurge this much, when I consider the food we were served and the intimacy of the 2.5 hour experience I think $85 is really quite a bargain. Both of us left Ko that night in extremely high spirits: I, drunk with food-love, and JSK
, who had done the wine pairingwell, just drunk.


  1. Thanks for the link!

    The WSJ reviewer also concluded that when courses are split, women are presented with the lighter dish. SC and I -- both women, identical menus -- didn't have this issue when we dined at Ko in early April... though I think there may have been fewer dishes in the repertoire then, too.

  2. check out this website! this lady shows how to make korean food, i've been watching her youtube instructional videos for the last 2 hours. she's this funky/adorable ahjumah

  3. oops of course i forgot to include the url:

  4. I think I just dribbled onto my keyboard.