6-day trip report - Jungsik, Per Se, Ko, EMP, and more! (long)
Three friends and I set out to have a foodcentric tour of Manhattan. I ended up asking lots of questions on this board and received lots of recommendations, so thanks for everything! I'm posting a HUGE string of reviews, with the larger format tasting menus on their posts, so hopefully that makes it easier to read.
tl;dr: EMP > Ko = Jungsik > Per Se
Shake Shack, Times Square
We got the SmokeShack burger and thought it was quite good. It definitely wasn't the best burger we've ever had and it was probably impossible for it to live up to the Shake Shack hype, but it was one very good burger. The bacon was good, but the peppers are what made the burger shine. They provided the acidity to cut through the rich burger and the lingering heat was a nice touch. The crinkle fries were very good and my friend had a strawberry milkshake, which he said was pretty good. I'm not sure I'd choose the SmokeShack over my beloved In-N-Out Double Double, but it was an excellent burger. Through our entire meal, we kept seeing people walking by us with these burgers that had this fried hockey puck-looking thing. We finally realized it was the fried cheese-stuffed portabello mushroom. We really wished we had gotten that instead of the SmokeShack.
Stumptown (West 8th)
We arrived too late to be able to go to the Brew Bar for a nitro cold brew. We ended up with just the normal hot coffee, which at the time was Indonesia Sulawesi Toarco Peaberry. It had great flavor with some floral notes I really enjoyed. I liked it so much I ended up buying a bag of beans. I also really liked the coffee shop itself. It was warm and inviting, without seeming snooty.
We arrived at Flushing Main Street with the goal to get a few things to eat and then get a cab to go to Sik Gaek for some live squid. While walking towards Golden Mall, we saw smoke coming from a stand and I excitedly walked over hoping it was a skewered meat stand like the ones in Taiwan. And it was! It turned out to be the Xinjiang BBQ Cart operated by a very nice husband and wife team. All skewers were $1.25 and we got a variety of chicken, beef, lamb, chicken heart, and squid. The chicken was the clear winner. The meat was beautifully cooked over hot coals and the spicy seasoning was perfect. Every skewer we had was excellent, but I still crave that chicken one. We then walked to the Golden Mall basement food court and found a dumpling place that sold us 12 handmade pork and cabbage dumplings for $3. With the black vinegar and the chili oil, they were delicious. If anyone knows the name of the place, I would love to find out.
Halal Guys (53rd and 6th, SE corner)
Our conference hotel was right by Halal Guys, so we gave it a try even though I knew I have only gotten really good Halal plates from the original stand at night. The one we went to during lunch had the official Halal Guys shirts and signs, but the food just didn't hit the mark. The chicken was dry and the lamb had no char to it at all. By the time we got it back across the street to the hotel, the meat and rice was cold. The lamb had almost no flavor and reminded me of those little sausage chunks you get on cheap frozen pizza. They really need to get some char onto that lamb. Both the chicken and the lamb were sitting on the grill area, so not sure why they had no grill flavor. The white sauce was great and the red sauce was as spicy as ever, but altogether the meal missed the mark.
See reply for Jungsik.
Halal Guys (original location, 53rd and 6th, SW corner)
We went back to Halal Guys around 1am. We once again ordered the lamb and chicken over rice and, this time, the platter tasted like what I've had in the past. The lamb was seasoned and browned with little charred bits. The chicken was tender and flavorful. The rice was hot and the salad was ice cold. It was amazing how different this platter was to the one I had 12 hours earier across the street.
There was only minimal wait becauase of the bad weather. We tried both the original Shiromaru Hakata Classic and the Akamaru Modern. Both broths were wonderful, but the Akamaru Modern was the winner. The secret "Umami Dama" miso paste really made the flavor of the broth more rich and complex. The noodles were much more "toothsome" than I'm used to at a ramen house, but I liked it a lot since it was a nice texture contrast (I'm used to everything in the bowl being sort of soft). One problem was the chashu pork was pretty bad. It was thick, tough, lacking in flavor, and was a very unappealing brown color. It looked like a boiled piece of pork that had been rolled and sliced. I was expecting a much more delicate pork sliced thin with intense flavor and at least some pork fat. All three of us left most of the chashu pork untouched.
Second time at Stumptown and this time, we came while the brew bar was in operation. We opted for the nitro cold brew instead of getting something custom brewed in one of the many brewing contraptions. Looking back, I wish I had gotten something brewed with the siphon. We all got the nitro cold brew and, while it was creamy and good at first, the creaminess went away as it settled and became this soft of sour iced coffee that was a bit offputting. Maybe I just don't know enough about good coffee, but the sour coffee taste did not sit well with me. I was hoping there would be a simple syrup at the bar so I could add a little, but had to settle for normal granulated sugar. The sugar helped, but it was still pretty sour. I also tried their Winter cold brew with the mulling spices and it was exceptional! Tasted like what I wish a Starbucks gingerbread latte would taste like. I got one to-go and happily sipped it throughout my subway ride back to the hotel.
See reply for Per Se.
Halal Guys (original location, 53rd and 6th, SW corner)
Went back to Halal Guys since our fourth person had joined us and wanted it. This time, we still went to the official original location, but the lamb once again had no char to it. They had the lamb and chicken in two hotel pans placed over the grilling surface. When I saw that, my heart sunk and I knew it would not be as good as it was the night before. Indeed, the lamb lacked any browness. The flavors were still good, but not great. Why keep the meat steaming in hotel pans when you have a grill right there? Maybe that's what they do when it's really cold and snowing, but I wish they would take some out of the hotel pan, get it on the grill, sell it, then take more from the hotel pan and transfer it to the grill. I have never had such bad luck with Halal Guys as I did this trip.
See reply for Ko.
Momofuku Ssam Bar
We came here right after Ko to try a famed David Chang pork bun. We really wished we had not. The pork bun was pretty awful. The pork itself lacked flavor and the bun was slightly soggy. Altogether, the pork bun as a whole just sucked. It felt like a component was missing. It's very strange since I had a pork bun at Ssasm Bar a couple years ago and loved it more than the one at Ippudo. But this time, it was such a disappointment. I could have sworn my pork bun last time had a kimchee puree, but it was not present this time. It was definitely not a good idea to follow up the perfection of Ko with a Ssam Bar pork bun.
Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream
Holy crap, this place is expensive. But the ice cream is delicious. The earl gray flavor was exactly what we needed to clense our palates after the pork bun debacle. I also got the hazelnut, which I enjoyed a tad bit less. The hazelnut had so many nuts in it that it disrupted the smooth creaminess of the ice cream and made it feel icy instead. I wish I had room to have also tried the hot chocolate made with 99% chocolate. I'm always on the hunt for nice rich hot chocolate that is not too sweet or vanillay. I bet this place could have provided that.
Momofuku Milk Bar
Third David Chang place of the day and this experience was, unfortunately, more like our Ssam Bar experience than our Ko experience. The famed Crack Pie was ridiculously sweet to the point of being inedible. I thought the cereal milk ice cream was decent, but everyone else hated it. There was something strange about the flavor, but at least it was light and somewhat refreshing. I also picked up three cookies, although I've only eaten the peanut butter one so far. It's a great cookie with lots of peanut butter flavor, but boy, I don't even want to guess how much butter is in that one cookie.
We then walked from Milk Bar all the way to Chelsea Market and then walked the High Line for a while. We ended up getting coffee at Ninth Street Espresso, which served us some nice coffee, but I think I prefer Stumptown. I did like that they had simple syrup available. The surprise of the night was Ronnybrook Milk Bar. We ended up buying chocolate milk in glass bottles and it was so good that I drank a whole cup of it even though I know my body cannot handle drinking milk (I'm a bit lactose intolerant). $4.75 for chocolate milk or $4 for normal milk and you can keep the glass bottle? I'm a bit embarrassed to say I bought a quart of milk just for the bottle and ended up pouring the milk down the drain. My friend also bought a blueberry milkshake which was the best milkshake I've ever had. It tasted exactly like a frozen blueberry pancake without the bready pancake part. So good! Unfortunately, we were too full to try a sandwich at Num Pang or to get the artichoke pizza from Artichoke Basille across the street.
I'm sad that there is only one location remaining of my favorite dog and papaya drink shop. The recession special is still going strong. The papaya drink stands on its own as one of the most delicious and thirst-quencing drinks I can think of. The hot dogs are probably more debateable, but I do enjoy them still. I doubt I'd pay the $2 they ask for a hot dog, but as part of the recession deal ($5 for two hot dogs and a papaya drink), it's great. It might not be a good hot dog, but to me, it tastes like New York. Nothing better than eating hot dogs and drinking papaya drinks while the rest of the city is at Valentine's Day dinner.
Prince Street Pizza
Late night trek to get pizza. We came here because one of my friends saw a reddit post by Kenji Lopez-Alt (The Food Lab) where he claimed this place to be his favorite pizza spot. My friend looked the place up and saw that they use the pepperoni that cooks up "into a cup full of pepperoni grease" with charred edges, so we were sold. We ordered an entire signature pepperoni Sicillian pizza (8 large square slices) and it was as good as it looked. They were very generous on the amount of pepperoni used as, as advertised, the pepperoni curved into cups full of pepperoni grease. It was one heck of a pizza!
Came for the famous banana pudding and ended up with a few pastries as well. The banana pudding is fantastic. Thick and full of banana flavor, yet somehow still light. It felt almost like I was eating ice cream. It's a good thing I don't live nearby, since I think I would want that banana pudding all the time. I also got a chocolate cranberry cookie, which was excellent. The lemon bundt cake, the mini blueberry crisp, and the lemon bar were all good. I think the only item I didn't like was the coffee cake which was supposed to have Peet's Coffee in it. There wasn't much coffee flavor at all.
We made the trip to the original location in East Harlem and ordered a a whole pie from the take-out store. Whole pie with fresh mozzerella and basil totaled $17 and it came out hot and fresh from their coal oven. Wow, the pizza was so good I wanted to eat the entire pie myself. The thin crust was light, the sauce tasted like fresh crushed tomatoes, the whole pizza was delicious. It's impossible to get a pizza like this where I'm from. Somehow the pizza felt light and refreshing to eat and the complete opposite of what I normally get when I order pizza. Patsy's has ruined me on pizza since, whenever I order it now, I'm going to be comparing it to the pie I had at Patsy's.
We came pretty late in the day and many flavors were sold out. We ended up getting a dozen to eat later on. The creme brulee DoughSeed was the standout, with the not-too-sweet filling and the nicely carmelized top. The coffee cake doughnut would be my second favorite with a nice dose of coffee flavor. The Blackout was good as well, since it was intensely chocolate tasting without the sweetness. We also tried the passionfruit and the rose water, both of which I was not fond of. Unfortunately, we had arrived too late to be able to try the Green Tea doughnut.
Eleven Madison Park
See reply for EMP.
Shake Shack, Upper West Side
We started the trip with Shake Shack, so it was only appropriate that we end the trip with Shake Shack. This time, we got the Shack Stack, which is a normal burger with the addition of the fried cheese-stuffed portabello mushroom (from the 'shroom burger). This is the burger that meets the Shake Shack expectations. It feels a little weird to spend $9 on a fast food burger, but I took a bite and realized it was definitely NOT a fast food burger. The flavors were so complex with the cheese filling oozing out of the mushroom and the fried mushroom itself adding texture and umami to the burger. If I'm ever at Shake Shack again, I know what I'm getting. For some reason, this location uses fresh-cut fries instead of the crinkle fries. It's unfortunate since the Shake Shack crinkle fry was so tasty when I had it at the Times Square location. Maybe because it's the Upper West Side, they tried to be "healthy" with fresh-cut fries, but they end up limp and mushy and lacking in flavor. The Shack Stack burger beats out In N Out, but the fries here are worse than In N Out fries.
And that's it! A six-day eating adventure which I think was a pretty good representation of food in New York. We had a ton of other places we wanted to try, but there was just not enough time or stomach space. In terms of our tasting menus, I think the final order would be EMP > Ko = Jungsik > Per Se. Thanks for being great hosts, New York!
This made up for our bad lunch at Halal Guys earlier in the day. Jungsik was one of the most impressive meals I've had in a long time. Their flavors were complex, the dishes well composed, and the subtle Korean influence was a joy to experience. We got the tasting menu and added a full-size Pork Jowl and a full-size Jang Dok. I also asked that the mushroom course be substituted since I dislike mushrooms. The progression of the meal was very good and the dishes were consistently impressive.
The portion sizes here are actually quite large and I probably should have substituted dishes for the tasting menu instead of adding on extra dishes, but everything was so tasty I'm glad I tried everything I could.
The raw scallop presentation is a great dish. Three scallops on top of uni sauce and fresh apples and cucumbers made a very strong start to the meal. The squid ink panko fried oysters were perfect. The crispy red snapper with cilantro (or parsley?) tom yum was spectacular. Instead of the mushrooms, they gave me a tasting portion of the wagyu beef and truffle bibimbap (with quinoa instead of rice). The pork jowl with sweet and sour broth was my favorite dish of the night.
From beginning to end, the meal exceeded my expectations. The tasting menu changes often, but I would say the scallops, the oysters, the crispy red snapper, and the pork jowl are must-eats. If they're not on your tasting menu, do a substitution to get them or just order them on the side. I don't think I have ever had a meal where every dish was as strong as it was at Jungsik. Each dish had flavor combinations I have never had before with great complexity and texture. The pork jowl was not on my tasting menu. I have no idea what I would have substituted on my tasting menu to get the pork jowl. That shows how strong the menu was. Why is Jungsik not 3 stars?
I would highly recommend it! As great as fancy tasting menus go, I don't often actually find myself craving a dish again a few days later. With Jungsik, I already want that oyster and that pork jowl again. I was skeptical at first and was debating changing my reservation, so I'm very glad I stuck with it!
Nice details report that will come in handy when planning our next trip. Junksik was the restaurant we really missed out on when we were last there (had a reservation, but got foiled by Hurricane Sandy).
Also, I am somewhat amused by your dislike of mushrooms (and substitution at Jungsik), but seeming "love" of the Shake Shack burger with mushroom… ;-)
haha, the contradiction never occurred to me! It's pretty funny now that I think about it.
What I left out is that I'm okay with portabello, porchini, crimini, morels, etc as components of a dish, especially if they're fried or cooked into a pizza. But I tend to dislike dishes that feature the mushroom as the main ingredient, especially if they're Asian mushrooms (often dehydrated and rehydrated, thus intensifying the flavor). Once I saw that Jungsik's tasting menu had a dish titled "mushrooms", I knew I wanted no part of it!
Honestly, I was not expecting all that much from Per Se. I remember them opening to mixed reviews and I know they peaked at some point, but I had this feeling they had been overtaken by all the new places in town doing more modern and creative food. I had called a couple times prior to note a few special requests on the reservation and the woman who answered the phone was curt and pretty rude. We ended up on a long 5-minute back-and-forth where she actually raised her voice and was obviously annoyed at me. My friend dislikes chocolates, so I had called to ask that he be given an alternative while the rest of us were enjoying petit fours. I also requested a kitchen tour which was never added to the reservation. The meal itself was great and was not as stuffy as I had expected. It is impressive to see service on this level of precision and I think it's something that is starting to die off, so it was fun to experience it.
The signature Oysters and Pearls were amazing and set a high bar for the rest of the meal, which unfortunately never sung as high as that initial course. I thought every dish was good, but there was nothing that was that memorable. The proteins themselves were my main problem. It felt like the dishes were well composed, the sauce and accompanying components were good, but the protein being highlighted lacked something. The salmon lacked any sort of seasoning. The scallops were nicely seared, but quite tough in the middle. The venison was okay, but not really memorable. The best protein of the night was probably the chicken. It was done sous vide and had a very crispy skin. The sauces that accompanied the proteins were good, but not enough to really make up for the proteins themselves.
Our salmon course was (I think) a confit salmon with some sort of flavorless membrane placed over the top. We're still unsure of what that course was since the menu said "slow-poached sea bass", but our waiter came by and said something about the chef wanting to do a confit for our fish dish since we had no supplements. We said okay, and never heard anything about it again. The salmon was dropped off without much explanation and it was flavorless. That membrane was essentially the wrapper of a shrimp dumpling at a dim sum place and it seemed to be there for no reason. The salmon was beautiful and quite a large serving, but it needed some salt.
The desserts were also very weak. We were given a "pre-dessert" of a passion fruit puree with pineapple foam. It was pretty good and a nice change from the heaviness of the dishes prior. Next was an apple ice cream with some crispy things thrown on top. And then came the mountain of nougets and macarons and truffles. And then the overwhelming box of chocolates. We were already so full that eating these chocolates was uncomfortable. We each chose four pieces of chocolate and ate two. The white chocolate with black sesame was perhaps the best piece of chocolate I've ever had. We asked that they box up the rest of the stuff. I think this is a terrible way to end the meal. I would rather they take all the excessive amounts of chocolates away and just give me a single composed dessert course. Give me something interesting and refreshing. Send me away with a box of four chocolates.
Today I ate the cookies that came in the Per Se tin we were sent home with. They were excellent! But then I opened what I assumed was a full box of a variety of treats that we had asked them to box. Inside were just the two pieces of chocolate I had chosen but not eaten. They were just put into the box and allowed to jostle around. I had assumed they would "pack" the leftovers by just giving you a box with an assortment of chocolates. Or at least filled the rest of the empy space with a few extra pieces of chocolate. It was not a good last impression.
This was one heck of a meal. Just getting the reservation was a feat. They only take parties of two and we had a total of four people. It was also Valentine's Day, so we needed two people to secure reservations for two for the only lunch seating on Valentine's Day. Somehow we managed that and the staff at Ko were able to serve us as a group of four even though our reservations were 20 minutes apart.
It was an honor being able to eat at the 12-person counter at Ko. Watching the chefs work and interacting with them was a joy. The food they put out might not be as classy or upscale as Per Se, but it was much more fun and tasty. They have a "No Cameras" rule at Ko which I liked since we could focus on eating once the food was set in front of us. Plus, I feel that leaves the chefs able to plate without feeling like each plate will be photographed and critiqued later. For a place like Ko, I don't mind the plating being a little imperfect as it fits with the environment and the food. We were sitting at the area manned by Sous Chef Josh Pinsky, who seemed to be running the show during lunch (the chef de cuisine, Sean Gray, popped in from time to time, but he was mostly down in the prep area) was fun to interact with. He dropped and presented most of our dishes and then recommended some other places nearby to try. We felt so at ease with him and it was so much fun to chat with him as he plated.
The food itself was solid. The celery root tortellini was amazing and a dish I will remember for a long time. The venison loin with pureed kale and fermented cranberry juice beat out Per Se's venison loin by a mile. The shaved foie with lychee was perfection. Desserts, while still comprising of mostly ice creams, felt much more substantial than Per Se's desserts. That ice cream cone at the end with miso ice cream, puffed barley, and mochi rice hidden inside was the best possible way to end the meal.
Eleven Madison Park
I had eaten at EMP a couple years ago right before the menu change and I knew that EMP should be the meal that should be our finale dinner for the trip. And I was right. The experience that EMP offers is unable to be topped by anywhere in New York and the meal was one that I will remember for a long time. The greeting we received as we entered to the service throughout made us feel special and as if we were the only table at the restaurant that night. Everything is precise, but you don't notice it being "mechanical".
The new menu is very fun. Every dish is a mystery and a surprise. Every dish has multiple elements that come together and make the meal about the whole experience, not just the food. Normally I would expect the gimmicks to negatively affect the food, but here, they are confident enough about the food to be able to be more creative with the presentation.
It's been two days and we're still talking about the the oyster course and the "bone marrow" course. The oyster with the vichyssoise and the caviar was so good I could have eaten two dozen of them. The "bone marrow" with beef tartare and caviar hidden inside was fun and delicious. We chose the duck as our entree for the table and the duck breast had the most amazing spice rub. It was so aromatic and went so well with the flavor of the duck. I also really enjoyed the picnic basket as I had no idea what to expect.
The service at EMP is unparalleled. My fried is a beer drinker and they had the beer expert come chat with him. We ordered coffee without being offered a table-side presentation and, when my friend asked about that, they set up a table-side Chemex brew for the entire table. The server told us all about the coffee we would be drinking and the intricacies about brewing with Chemex. Since we showed interest in the Chemex, she also provided us with official brewing instructions from Chemex and when she learned we were from California, she recommended a few roasters in our area that she liked. Finally, I had requested a kitchen tour and the Maitre D'came to introduce himself near the end of our meal to let us know to expect the tour as we finish the meal. There is a table set up in the kitchen for this reason and one of the chefs comes over to create a frozen cocktail for you. The cocktail is made and you eat it while in the kitchen, so there is plenty of time to observe the kitchen at work and to ask questions. In case you were wondering, there are 37 people in the kitchen and another 35 people in the dining room. A total of 72 staff members for a restaurant that hits 80 diners maximum at any one time.