Something I've found to be true about New York is that it's often easy to get into a popular restaurant on a Friday night if you're there by 7 pm. 8 pm, however, is an entirely different story. Luckily, it was early enough when I entered an establishment notably located down an inconspicuous alleyway on the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side. I wasn't immediately sure that I was in the right place. I was looking for a bar (of sorts) attached to a prominent tasting menu destination, and I hadn't been to either before. Yet as I took in the room—all dark, sleek, and seductive—I was swiftly informed that I opened the correct door. The sliver of a place was half empty, with only two of five tables and four of eight bar seats occupied. R&B tunes were playing. My date was running ten minutes late, and yet the hostess set me up with two stools anyway. Where am I? I thought.
Not your average restaurant, that's for sure. In fact, the kitchen that sits opposite the bar serves as a testing ground for chefs to audition dishes that may or may not make it onto the menu at its fancier counterpart. Thus, the offering retains staples but changes frequently, and is presented as a notebook flipped open to two hand-written pages, dated on top.
As a guest and therefore a judge, I can confidently say that almost everything I ate was worthy. Like the sourdough crepe made from the same starter used in the bread baked next door, crisped up on a Japanese charcoal grill and dribbled with tangy, cave-age butter. Or the fridge-cold fried chicken encased in a thick, shatteringly crisp crust and glistening from a lacquer of mirin, yuzu, and green Tabasco. And a perfectly cooked dry-aged strip loin finished with a meaty glaze, which we devoured with a single steak knife and two pairs of chopsticks, forgetting that we each had a full set of silverware being stored for us in drawers underneath the bar. I suppose the cutlery is hidden from plain-sight because most of the menu can be consumed with chopsticks, if not your own two hands. Or perhaps, it's just a cool design trick—made to emphasize the restaurant's handsome aesthetic.
The wine list here is serious (read: high-end and quite expansive), but a sommelier picked for us a delicious Austrian pinot noir for under $100, which we drank out of Zaltos—their wine glass of choice, and the best that there is.
Eventually, the soundtrack shifted to Rihanna. By 8:30 pm, the wait was two hours. A pair of chefs danced from the grill to the cutting board, masterfully executing dishes, taking a moment here and there to work on something in-progress. At one point, I caught them slicing and tasting what looked like a pickled nectarine, although the consensus seemed to be that it wasn't there yet.
And then David Chang showed up. He was meeting a friend for drinks and some food a few seats over. If you didn't know, you wouldn't know, because he was enjoying his experience and his company just as everyone else was. The moody space was lit up by the smiling faces of diners who felt special, as if they were let in on a secret: here, the food is not just innovative, but exquisite, and when you come to enjoy it, you'll be treated with the utmost hospitality and maybe even witness the making of something spectacular.
“Cheesecake?” Our waitress asked knowingly, a few minutes after clearing our plates. A baking sheet of the fluffy Japanese dessert was in our direct sight throughout the meal, and we took notice as thick slices of it were paraded around the room. It was light and airy, almost like a sponge cake—not my most favorite of sweets—but it was different… funky, almost, which it turns out, was due to a drizzle of that same cave-age butter. We left too early to know if Chang ordered a piece for himself, but my guess would be that he, too, came full circle.
Momofuku Ko Bar
8 Extra Pl, New York, NY 10003
Things I've recently read and liked:
People keep complaining that restaurants have gotten louder, and a few recent experiences have led me to agree. What is there to do?! [New Yorker]
I love a good cake, especially chocolate (Mah-Ze-Dahr's "Devil in Ganache" is the best, ever), but no one wants a Black Forest Cake. It's fascinating how a food that almost no one enjoys can become symbolic, even in a country where it doesn't come from. [Roads & Kingdoms]
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