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Momofuku Ko - Best Meal of My Life!

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(I originally posted this in my blog, so pardon me if it sounds kind of teachy/preachy.)

I maaaaay have said some mean things about Chef David Chang in the past. I may have suggested he’s arrogant and that all of the NYC food critics are stuck up his butt. I may have complained about his anti-photo policy and his online reservation system that requires weeks (months!) of clicking just for the opportunity to spend $700 and not eat until 9:40 p.m. on a Monday night.

But I was wrong, and on Saturday, my boyfriend and I had what was so unequivocally the best meal of our lives that I might have to add an extra doughnut to my rating system just to accommodate it.

We’d heard that lunch at Momofuku Ko was longer and more creative than dinner service, so we arrived at 12:40 p.m. on Saturday and handed over our obligatory e-mail reservation confirmation (I imagine they’d have a lot of people pretending to be other people without it, hard as it is to get a reservation there). Neither of us were excited about it. In the least. We were interested in the restaurant from the standpoint that about 99% of people who eat there call it life-changing, but honestly, if they didn’t charge $150 per person for not showing up, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have gone to Taco Bell instead.

We were seated at two of the stools around the 14-person bar like at Degustation, only at Ko, there was a good two feet separating us from the couples on either side of us, so I didn’t have to worry about some dude’s elbows in my food. The kitchen is in the center of the bar, so we watched for a moment as plates of mushrooms and uni were prepared for our fellow diners. I scanned the various containers situated all around the kitchen for shrimp heads as Stereolab, Dr. Boyfriend’s favourite band, began playing overhead.

One chef stepped in front of us, greeted us familiarly, and asked if we had any food allergies. I considered listing all of the things I didn’t feel like eating that day–tomatoes, mushrooms, seafood of any kind–but in the end, we said we were good to go. And here’s what we got (with wine pairings!):

• British Columbian and Kumamoto oysters in sweet potato vinegar

My first time eating an oyster! It’s funny, because Kamran always says he won’t take me to Per Se because he’s afraid I’ll make him eat the inevitable oyster, but the chef just placed one each in front of us on a little bed of crushed ice, and I just scooped it up and, you know, kind of chewed on it without actually biting through it, and swallowed it whole. I didn’t even consider not eating it. And I think I actually liked it a little bit. It had super-intense ocean flavor made even more potent by the vinegar, but it also had that fresh, clean thing going on that really gets you ready to eat more.

• grilled sesame cracker smothered in black garlic spread with banana peppers

If there was one throwaway course, this was it. It was a cracker about the size of a postage stamp, grilled so the layers of dough puffed up and formed a little pocket, with black garlic spread and little sliced banana peppers sprinkled on top. It was fine and plenty delicious, but it felt less like a complete course and more like a time-filler.

• potato souffle tube filled with artichoke puree and Hackleback caviar

It looked like a half-size pretzel rod, but it tasted like the best potato chip you’ve ever had, formed into a browned tube and filled with smooth, rich artichoke. The caviar added a nice little salty note, but it wasn’t nearly as present as caviar usually is for me, which is good or bad, depending on how you feel about BRINY FISH EGGS.

• Fried artichoke on parsley root puree with olive and lime

This artichoke, light and fluffy as it was, reminded me of a deep-fried zucchini flower. It was served on the traditional Japanese soup spoon with a dollop of the puree underneath. I think of artichokes as being sort of beige and chewy, but this one nearly disintegrated on my tongue and made me think in yellows and pinks. The acid from the lime perked the entire dish up and made it seem summery.

• sushi plate:
1) fish scales
2) Spanish mackerel with beets and freeze-dried soy sauce
3) fluke with pickled onion
4) diver scallop with pineapple vinegar

This was the first real dish and the one where Kamran and I looked at each other with the glint of “holy crap!” in our eyes. Without a menu to reference, I was trying to jot down the courses as the chefs presented them to us, and this was one of those cases where my notes are sadly lacking. “fish scales”?

I’m someone who leaves the best thing on the plate for last, and to imagine myself–a life-long seafood-hater–actually putting aside a piece of fish with the intention of savoring it later is unthinkable. But those fish scales, whatever they were, were incredible. They were literally two slices of whitefish the size of quarters with the skin still on and nothing else. And they were INCREDIBLE. I loved fish + beet, I loved fish + onion, and I loved scallop + pineapple, but I loved fish + scale.

• 1) Santa Barbara uni, yuzu zest, puffed black rice
2) wagyu with diced squash

Sea urchin ovaries are weird. Bright orange with tiny striations, they kind of remind me of a cat’s tongue. A really, really sick cat’s tongue. I’m not in the OMG-uni-is-the-world’s-greatest-delicacy camp, but I do appreciate that it tastes unlike anything else–and at the same time exactly how you expect it to–and can be slurped down like only a freaky, freaky ladyparts custard can be.

The wagyu slice was basically raw. It had the tiniest bit of searing on the outside, but the inside was still dark red, which really let me appreciate its beautifully marbling. We made audible sounds of enjoyment as we chewed tiny bites of the steak to make it last longer and speared sweet orange squash squares.

• salad of wild mushrooms foraged from Maine, pickled jalapeno puree

This was Kamran’s favourite dish and the one I was toooooootally freaked out about. As someone who only started eating a few mushrooms at a time in the past few months, to see an entire dinner plate coming at you with about 15 large chunks of different types spread in a line across it is a very scary thing. But you know what? Mushrooms are the chicken of the forest, man.

Everything was meaty, moist, tender–and most importantly–punchy, thanks to that spicy puree. The Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom was absolutely my favourite because of the way its paperthin ends got browned and developed a crunchy texture. Kamran loved the cauliflower mushroom, which looked like a golfball-sized puff but was also a little crunchy.

• puffed Hillcrest Farms chicken egg in bacon broth with chives on top

This egg was as airy as any angel food cake, as whipped as any cream, and almost as sweet as either. It didn’t matter that the crunch of the bacon wasn’t physically present, because all of the flavor and fat still was.

• bento:
1) sous-vide lamb rib over daikon slaw
2) rice ball in pork fat
3) chopped broccoli salad with homemade XO sauce
4) kimchi consomme over a cube of pork belly

Never have I liked lamb so much! This was thick with the kind of fat that melts in your mouth and had probably cooked for hours if not a day. The julienned radish was flecked with chopped herbs for such an elevated take on BBQ and cole slaw. The cube of fatty pork belly was equally as tender, and the dark flavors of long-cooked pig were such a compliment to the fermented broth. But the real star was that XO sauce, which Kamran has been telling me about for a long time. It’s full of everything I don’t like in the ocean, but the result is just a really savory chili sauce along the lines of Sriracha.

• matsutake ravioli with matsutake tea, spruce oil, and a brown butter bread “sugar cube”

Mushroom tea! With a tiny spoon and an even tinier “sugar cube” made from sweetened bread!

• trout in caper brine with green beans, butter-toasted almonds, yuzu glaze

This was the least exciting savory dish for both of us, but we still loved the textures of the tender fish with the snappy beans and crunchy almonds.

• shaved frozen foie gras torchon, lychee pine nut brittle, Riesling jelly, yuzu

With a grater in one hand and a napkin-wrapped, salami-shaped, frozen foie gras in the other, the chef shaved about a pound of fatted liver over the other components of the dish. As soon as our spoons touched it, the foie melted and became a little gelatinous to match the Riesling jelly. I understand that if even the Real Housewives of Atlanta are mispronouncing foie gras and talking about how much they love it, everyone’s aware of how rich and creamy a torchon is, but I’ve never had it richer nor creamier.

• short rib, shaved Brussels sprouts, compressed watermelon, cake of japanese eggplant

It was at this point that Kamran announced, “Honestly, this is worth any price.” The short rib was covered with such a thick, sweet crust that we had to saw through it with our knives, but the beef inside was super-tender. I’m a huge Brussels sprouts fan, but I’d never had them in this preparation, where all of the flavor remains but the form is entirely not-cabbagey.

• sunflower and rye bread box filled with Camembert, golden raisins, and apple with shaved macadamia nut on top

Kamran called this “gourmet grilled cheese”. It was a crispy open-topped box the size and shape of a stick of butter, filled with melted cheese and fruit.

• fruit compote “chutney”, sancho ice cream, vanilla wafer chips (paired with Little Kings beer from Cincinnati, OH!)

I really have NO IDEA what this course was about. We had been drinking the paired wines, sakes, and beers for more than two hours at this point, and we were trashed. Although my notes clearly say “sancho ice cream”, I was clearly crazy. What could it have been? Sunchoke ice cream? That sounds awful.

All I know is that the fruit was heavily glazed like a mango chutney and some sort of ice cream on top that quite frankly tasted like vanilla to me. But maybe it was just the overwhelming Ohioness of the beer overpowering my tastebuds. Either way, as a play on pie, it was a success.

(Now that he’s a little more clear-headed, Kamran thinks the “sancho” may actually be “sansho”, which is a kind of Korean pepper.)

• bittersweet chocolate pudding over puffed white rice bits with a shot of almond milk

The almond milk is what made this dish. The pudding was a bit too drippy for me, but the dark chocolate flavor was rich, and the tiny puffed balls of rice added a great crunch.

• To take home (lunch only, from what I’ve read): onigiri, pickled vegetables

It feels dumb to write about this food, honestly, because nothing I can say can convey just how utterly exciting, technically perfect, and intensely flavorful this meal was. It’s actually kind of offensive to keep saying it was “seriously, really, really good”, because it was beyond passionate and masterful. We spent the entire night and most of the next day talking about how we had probably ruined ourselves for any other sort of fine dining.

The terrible part is that in the midst of our heavy drinking, Kamran said, “I think it’s pretty likely we’re gonna go home and puke everything up.” And guess what–I did! I just don’t think I’m equipped for three hours of drink pairings. I got plenty of enjoyment out of it in the hour or so I kept it down, though, so I’m going to say it was well worth what Kamran spent.

The other great moment is when the woman next to me went to the restroom–which was filled with cookbooks, by the way–and I leaned over to ask her boyfriend if I was going to see his review on his blog. He’d been writing down the entire meal and asking the chefs for clarifications (I wonder if he got “sancho ice cream”, too), but he said he doesn’t have a blog yet. And then he asked, “Did you review SHO Shaun Hergatt on Chowhound?” And I said, “Nooooooo,” because my brain was entirely nonfunctioning at that moment. But then I realized it was me and said, “Oh, wait, yeah!” And then I had to apologize for being drunk three to four times. So, sorry about that, ramenbound, and nice to meet you!

There's no photo-taking allowed in the restaurant, of course, but photos of the take-home items are here: http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2010/10/...

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Per Se
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

Momofuku Ko
163 1st Ave, New York, NY 10003

SHO Shaun Hergatt
40 Broad St, New York, NY 10004

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  1. Great recap. Was it really $700 for 2 people? Was the liquor included or separate.

    2 Replies
    1. re: princeofpork

      Thanks!

      I didn't see the bill itself, but I know it was $175 for lunch and $95 for the pairings, plus tax and tip, so $700 is about right. And well worth it, if you believe my boyfriend.

      1. re: plumpdumpling

        Wow that is a lot to spend on a meal. Good for him (and you)!

    2. The original comment has been removed
      1. The original comment has been removed
        1. Thanks for the very detailed report. I gave up on the wine pairings a while ago since they're very generous. You might enjoy sharing a bottle of wine instead. My favorite is a German Riesling.

          2 Replies
          1. re: ellenost

            I'm a huge Riesling fan, as well! Probably because it's usually on the sweet side.

            The only time we had wine pairings we could actually handle was at Tocqueville, where they did half-pours. I guess we're going to have to learn our wine and stop relying on the restaurants to do the work for us.

            1. re: plumpdumpling

              I'm looking forward to the opening of Lotus of Siam in NY since Lotus of Siam in LV has one of the most extensive and reasonably priced list of German Rieslings. I hope the NY version keeps the same (or at least a good portion at the same prices as the LV restaurant). I find that German Rieslings pair beautifully with Asian cuisine. I'm heading back to Ko for lunch next week. Due to the low alcohol content of the Rieslings, I can finish about 2/3 of a bottle with no ill effects during the 16-course lunch at Ko. For the 10-course dinner at Ko, I can drink no more than half of a bottle.

          2. Great recap, especially of the moment at the end! ;)

            1 Reply
            1. re: ramenbound

              Thanks! It was great to meet you, and I'm still waiting for your post about it!