To many in New York and elsewhere, when it comes to food, David Chang and his staff at the burgeoning Momofuku culinary empire in NYC can do no wrong. I had not been in that camp and had been somewhat critical based on an earlier experience at Momofuku Ssam Bar. It wasn't that I thought the food bad. I didn't. I simply didn't think that the value of the food at the time was sufficient to justify some of the drawbacks of the restaurant, including tight spaces, long waits, and a lack of serving utensils for dishes that in common practice are often shared. I simply thought that the restaurant wasn't quite as good as many made it out to be. Then I went Saturday night.
We had a wait of about twenty minutes before our party of three was seated (we were told that it would be 45 minutes) at a perfect table overlooking the kitchen. While it was a shared table, we had plenty of room for ourselves and our plates without overlapping the others sharing the table or even encroaching upon each other. We were already off to a good start, this being around 9:30PM. The kitchen under Chef de Cuisine Tien Ho and sous chefs Francis Derby, Josh Kleinman and Sean Gray would not let us down.
I ordered house sake and we started with some seafood dishes. The sake was good and the dishes started coming out at a good pace, neither rushing us through the meal or making us sit too long before the next course. Much to my delight, many (though not all) of the dishes actually came with serving utensils in addition to our personal utensils and the never-ending supply of chopsticks available on the table. The dearth of serving utensils in a restaurant like this had been one of my most significant criticisms. One should be very close to one's dining companions when dining here had been my thought. While that remains a good thing wherever one dines, it no longer was an essential piece of advice for this restaurant, I am pleased to say. The service, too was extremely efficient and very friendly from the hostess to each of the waitstaff who worked with us. This too was an improvement from my previous visit. I was no longer feeling like a piece of cattle who was lucky enough to be in the stockyard. Quite the opposite. I was able to relax and enjoy my dining companions and the meal.
This was a good thing, because the meal was certainly quite worthy of being enjoyed. The food was all very well conceived and executed with great exceptionally balanced and creative flavors and textures.
We shared quite a few plates including:
Beausoleil oysters with kimchee consommé and Cracked Empress jonah crab claws with harissa mayo. The oysters were very good though not as special as the ones I had had earlier in the week at The Four Seasons party. The crab claws were excellent. The sauce was vibrant, flavoring the crab without overpowering it. On my previous visit I had had the crab claws with a yuzu mayo and was left unimpressed. Whether it was the harissa mayo or the claws themselves, I was much more receptive to the claws this time than last.
Santa Barbara uni with lemon, celery and nori was a lovely dish. I am a sucker for good uni and this dish had good uni that married well with the disparate ingredients that together proved to be greater than the sum of the parts. This synergy is what good cooking is all about and was something apparent through the remainder of the meal.
Asparagus and Burgundy snails with onion dashi and market greens was another hit, the combination muted the individual contributions of each ingredient, blending them into a new, cohesive, whole. The kitchen sent out what was a truly great dish, the Migliorelli Farm (N.Y.) snap peas with mint, egg and XO. Unfortunately, I did not get a presentable photo of the dish, which was all about excellent ingredients in perfect harmony, epitomized by the mint. Mint is a flavor that I really love, but it can be very assertive and easily overpower other ingredients, especially some of the more subtle ones of a dish like this. The mint, however, was used sparingly, but totally effectively, providing a haunting back note that played brilliantly off the other ingredients.
Being in town primarily for the Big Apple BBQ, one might think that the last thing we would want for dinner would be more ribs. Well, it was precisely because we were in for the BBQ that I felt compelled to order the BBQ Rib Sandwich (Newman's Farm, MO) with reed onion slaw. We didn't regret it. The sandwich was nothing like the Q from the BABBQ and was quite delicious. Besides, at that point we had only paid a brief visit to the BABBQ before venturing to Yankee Stadium for the Mets-Yankees game.
This was a weekend for pork as we had Bev Eggleston's Pork shoulder steak with zucchini and ramp dressing along with pickled papaya. While everything worked well together, the meat was so tasty that it really didn't need the additional support.
We finished the savory portion of our meal with Crispy pig's head (Newman's Farm, MO) with lime pickle and frisee. Essentially head croquettes, they were well cooked, but light on flavor, to me the least successful plate of the evening. My favorite part of the plate was the lime pickles, which added some needed pizazz. The dish was not a clunker. It simply paled at this stage of the meal compared to what came before. It was probably the one dish of the evening that I wouldn't order again, though I would be happy to eat it again if it was there.
I had asked for the check, but instead we had fresh utensils placed in front of us. They were not going to let us leave without dessert. This was a treat in more ways than one as the desserts were wonderful wexamples of the synergy I mentioned above.
Beet & lime ganache with goat's milk frozen yogurt and pistachio did nothing but please on every level. These desserts were light years better than the mochi from my first vist and of world class caliber. Both were pleasantly sweet without hitting one over the head with sugar. The balance of flavor and textural components was executed with a measured and competent hand. They provided a superb end to the meal.
While my first visit to MSB was decidedly underwhelming, this one showed me why David Chang and his crew have the following that they do. The food is not cheap, but this time I felt the value was clearly there. The food was creative, expertly prepared and delicious. I am a convert.