Okay, I’ll get right to the point: I think four-hour lunches should be de rigeur in this country. Or at least three-hour lunches, doncha think?
This revelation comes on the heels of a most spectacular birthday lunch on Friday at Momofuku Ko, David Chang’s 12-seat foodie mecca on First Avenue.
First of all, there is no number on the door, just the tiny signature “lucky peach” (which is what Momofuku means in Japanese).
We were the first to arrive for lunch service. The place is literally my closet times three, with a long bar for dining and the three chefs creating their dishes right there in front of you. Within half an hour, all 12 seats were taken, and we were taxiing for takeoff to culinary destinations unknown. There is no menu – it’s omakase-style, where the chefs prepare whatever they’ve gotten fresh at market and decided to create with it that day. And go ahead and call me lame, but even though it was my birthday, I couldn’t brave the full wine pairing in the afternoon. Instead, we were delighted to find lots of half-bottles on the menu, and settled on three different selections as the meal progressed.
First up were two amuse bouches: 1) a bite of grilled giant squid with red miso aioli and Chinese sausage, and 2) pomme soufflé (essentially a crisp, hollow potato tube that looked like a piece of penne), filled with crème fraiche and caviar. The squid was tough and chewy, but the sausage added a nice salty, smoky flavor. The pomme soufflé was crispy, creamy and yummy – a perfect one-bite starter, which is precisely what an amuse bouche is supposed to be.
We paired this and the next few raw courses with a cold sake, Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri, which had lots of ripe melon notes.
Next up was a chilly, briny, sweet Island Creek oyster with hackleback caviar and lime. Had they brought a plate of these, I could’ve ended there, packed up and driven back to Connecticut, a happy, satisfied lady.
But the crudo courses just kept on coming: Japanese kampachi sashimi with lemon jam and daikon radish sprouts; Long Island fluke with tobanjan (spicy fermented bean paste) and pickled shallots; and diver scallop with meyer lemon, shiso and freeze-dried soy sauce. The kampachi (baby hamachi) was firm and sweet, and was complemented nicely by the tart lemon flavor and sharp sprouts. However, it takes more than fresh, high-quality fish to make superb sashimi. It takes mad knife skills. David thought it was bold for the chef to simply slice up some fish and pass it off as “authentic.” He was right – the slices of kampachi and fluke were indeed inelegant and flabby, and while the flavor profiles were winning, the overall composition of the dishes was lacking. The scallop dish, on the other hand, was extremely impressive and imaginative. A variation on tartare, the scallops were creamy and counterbalanced by the crunchy-salty freeze-dried soy sauce beads and brightened by the sweet-tart meyer lemon (although David thought the scallops themselves could’ve been sweeter and just a touch fresher).
Our glasses now empty, we moved on to a half-bottle of 2004 Bitouzet-Prieur Meursault, which we sipped while savoring the swoonful, insanely memorable quintet of courses that followed, all of which were off the nirvana scale:
•Santa Barbara sea urchin on top of yuba (tofu) skin with horseradish oil and puffed black rice. Oh my. This is when the whole idea of slipping off the sunny street in broad daylight with my handsome boyfriend into this tiny, exclusive Bacchanalian oasis began to seem wickedly naughty. The luscious creaminess of the briny, sweet sea urchin was cut with the pungent initial hit of horseradish, which then combined more mellowly into the dish and wasn’t as sharp and startling with subsequent spoonfuls. The crunch of the puffed rice made the whole dish a party in my mouth.
•Softshell crab tempura handroll with sugar snap peas, XO sauce and Japanese kubi mayonnaise. This dish had it all: crunchiness (I think I would eat my tennis shoes if they were dipped in tempura batter and fried), sweetness and a smoky depth of flavor from the sauce, which is made from ground ham, ground shrimp, minced garlic and ginger.
•Paper-thin strips of octopus, which had been sous-vide and then frozen for easy slicing, with seabeans, shredded pickled cabbage, espelette pepper aioli and a very cute buckwheat croquette. The combination of the smooth octopus with the spicy, salty accompaniments was expertly counterbalanced by the toasty crunchiness of the croquette.
•Puffed egg with bacon dashi broth and shredded shiso kumdu seaweed served with a homemade bagel bite stuffed with cream cheese, bacon and scallion. It’s okay, go back and read that one again. I’ll wait. This one was mindblowingly playful. We had watched as one of the chefs had squirted dollops of foam from what looked like a giant stainless-steel whipped-cream can into a pan of simmering water, and wondered what on earth it was. Alas, it was the delicate puffed egg, which was so gossamer-light, I thought it would float off the plate. What a way to turn bacon-and-eggs completely upside-down. And the bagel bite? Doughy…bacony…buttery. Sinful.
•Spring pea soup served with tofu that the chef had made right in front of us, stewed morels and bacon. Beyond sublime. The tofu was meltingly ethereal and silky and the mouth-feel was unlike anything I’ve ever had. The soup was sweet and the morels added an earthiness in flavor and texture, while the bacon lent a hint of smokiness.
All I wanted at this point was a ride to the nearest five-star hotel! Sighhhhh. But there was still much more to be sipped and savored, and we chose that point to switch to red, ordering a 2004 Ridge Geyserville, Zin being one of my favorite varietals.
Next up was turbot poached in cherry-blossom fumé with caviar. I found the fish to be tough and fairly flavorless, and the liquid wasn’t as inspired as the previous courses. Perhaps it was meant as a palate cleanser, before venturing down the land-animal path?
The first meat dish was a cannelloni of rabbit leg and liver, topped with rabbit bacon and fennel in a fennel-frond Quark cheese sauce. Talk about umami. Rich, salty, creamy and a hint of smokiness. Nicely done, if a bit heavy.
The next dish was a showstopper, and I have a picture, although admittedly it doesn’t look like much on the plate:
Any guesses? Whoever said, “Shaved frozen fois gras over pine nut brittle, lychees and Riesling gelée,” –you’re RIGHT! I think I may have actually licked the plate when I was done, as I didn’t want to leave one drop unconsumed. The brittle was sweet and crunchy and nutty, while the lychees were smooth and fruity. The gelée added a bit of sweet acidity and the foie gras just took the whole dish into orbit, with the tiny unctuous dust binding the dish both texturally and taste-wise. (There has to be a more melodic word here. Flavorally? Tastely? You see where I’m trying to go?)
Finally came the dish we had been anticipating for nearly the whole meal. All along, we had watched as one of the chefs had threaded a pristine deboned, scored Long Island duck onto a long metal rod and suspended it over a large pot of hot peanut oil. He would baste the duck with the oil every few minutes, and we were told that within half an hour or so, the duck meat would cook through from the heat of the oil below and the skin would turn mahogany from the gentle oil bath. Check out the chef giving the oil bath below:
Astonishingly, the duck required only a few more minutes in the salamander to finish cooking after the skin had reached its gorgeousness. Upon presentation, we were told it had been stuffed with duck sausage, served with a cassis sauce, a grilled rice cube and grilled ramps. You know how sometimes in life you wait with great anticipation and it doesn’t quite measure up? Disappointingly, this was one of those cases. Though the trend is to serve duck medium-rare, this was much more on the rare side. Again, the thickness of the slab of meat was an issue – a more delicate slice would have been tastier. David’s piece had a grisly piece of silver muscle running through it, which made the dish pretty unappetizing as a whole. The ramp was yummy, as was the toasty, crispy cube of grilled rice. But overall, the dish was a huge let-down.
And so on we moved to the impeccable cheese course, which was a piece each of Singing Brook cheese (a hard sheep’s milk cheese) and Humboldt Fog (one of my long-time favorite goat cheeses, coated with vegetable ash), along with smoked cantaloupe jam, sweet and sour red onion compote and pork-fat brioche. Nice balance of textures, sweet and tart flavors, and tell me, who would complain about pork-fat brioche? High marks for the cheese plate.
Our penultimate course was refreshingly satisfying: Arnold Palmer ice cream with individual yellow cake crumbs (which had somehow been skim-coated with a nuance of white chocolate for richness and to keep them from clumping together). Light, with a tartness from the lemonade-iced tea flavor of the ice cream and an inexplicable sweet creamy crumbliness to the cake.
And finally, parsnip ice cream with red grapefruit pulp and hazelnut nougat on a smear of fudge sauce. I expected more tanginess from the grapefruit against the otherwise mellow flavors in the dish, but it was a satisfying end to the meal, nonetheless.
Ultimately I would say that half the fun of the experience was the food, and the other half was a combination of fascination with the preparations going on in front of our eyes and sheer lust from the whole “this-is-not-what-nice-suburban-moms-do-on-Friday-afternoons.” Now I see why Momofuku Ko won this year’s James Beard award for Best New Restaurant and why Dan Barber, from Blue Hill (the meal that will be nearly impossible to top), took home the higher honor of Outstanding Chef. I have great appreciation for the thoughtfulness and playfulness of the food at Ko, though. They reconceptualize food in a creative and meaningful way, and while every bite wasn’t life-changing, enough of them were remarkable and thought-provoking that I will remember the experience. (Will it make the “Wall of Fame?” Hmmm…well, there is no menu – I took all those notes as we were eating. But I just might frame the lucky peach for the wall to memorialize our special naughty afternoon!)