Momofuku Ko, New York City, United States

Momofuku Ko entrance, New York City

Luck must have been on my side with my visit to Momofuku Ko. This tiny 12-seater restaurant only opens the booking at exactly 10am Eastern Time in the US 1 week in advance for dinner and 2 weeks in advance for lunch on Fridays to Sundays, and the reservation can only be made on its website. On the Friday two weeks prior to my NYC visit, I kept reminding myself to log on to the site at 3pm in London to see if I could book for lunch, and if I failed to secure the booking, then at least I would have a few more days subsequently to try again. My brain inevitably drifted to think about other things – 3pm came and went without my realisation. At 3.15pm I suddenly realised what I should have done, so I logged on, and found that there was still availability on Friday lunchtime, so I made the online booking straight away.

If I had gone for lunch or dinner on the following Saturday or Sunday, even if I could have secured the booking, I would not have been able to enjoy the meal there, as hurricane Irene hit New York that weekend, and the place was closed over the whole weekend. So I’d always remember this meal as the lunch before the hurricane weekend.

I have heard a mixture of positive and not-so-positive comments from various people – I kept an open mind, with no expectation whatsoever even at a staggering price tag of USD175 for lunch.

The restaurant entrance was probably one of the least attractive ones I have seen – with the metal grid, it looked like it’s closed down, and it’s easy to miss it unless you specifically looked out for the logo of the peach! We went in and showed the piece of paper with the reservation details, and were swiftly led to the seats at the counter (there’s no table as such) facing the open kitchen. There were already 4 diners there enjoying their lunches. While it’s interesting to sit at the counter and be able to watch all the dishes being prepared and converse with the chefs, it was uncomfortably warm for me.

We were soon joined by customers no. 7 and 8, and then the 3-hour lunch began. Here’s a run-down of the dishes. (In case you are wondering why there’s no picture of any dishes, the restaurant does not allow any photography. Also there’s no menu so the description of each dish is what I have noted down):

(1) Palm souffle with dill mayonnaise and American caviar – These resembled mini spring rolls: crispy fried pastry filled with delicious smooth mayonnaise. The roll was light and airy.

(2) Rib-eye beef with pickled okra, mint and dried jalapeno – A small but tender piece of beef served on a Chinese soup spoon, with the various flavours visiting the taste buds in turn: first the pickle, then the mint, and finally a sweet flavour from the sauce.

(3) Kushi oyster with sweet potato vinegar – This was OK but nothing distinctive to write home about I must admit.

(4) Grilled octopus with avocado wasabi cream and dried olive – The strong kick of the wasabi failed to disguise the slightly fishy taste/smell of the octopus. Not really sure if the combination of ingredients worked that well.

These first four appetisers were presented one after another in quick succession, to the point that I started to worry that either the meal would finish in an hour or we would have ended up with 30+ dishes at that speed of service.

(5) 4 types of sashimi – Long Island fluke with black bean and daikon, Hamachi with water chestnuts and peppers, Bream with chopped chives and bonito flakes, Spanish mackeral with beetroot – the four different types of fish and preparations were presented as four little portions on a long plate. The one with the best flavour was the bream.

(6) Mixed vegetable platter – Roasted carrot with rice cracker, summer salad of green beans with homemade XO sauce, Grilled Shishito pepper – The carrot was slightly too hard and would have given it a better contrast of texture with the rice cracker if it had been cooked a little bit more. The salad was refreshing with a good spicy kick of the XO sauce. The shishito pepper had a nice flavour without too much seasoning.

(7) Mushroom salad with cilantro and jalapeno dressing – another dish with spicy taste to it, and while it was interesting to see a wide range of mushrooms gathering on the plate, the jalapeno left a rather strong spicy after-taste that it just lingered in the mouth for quite a while afterwards.

Up to this point, I found that there was a higher-than-expected proportion of dishes with spicy taste and I must admit I got a bit fed up with that. While Russell was not keen on mushrooms, that mushroom salad was his favourite dish up to this point. But we both agreed that, after an hour of eating, we found that the dishes were nice but nothing that was truly outstanding.

(8) Puffed egg with bacon dashi, sliced konbu and chives – Just as we thought the meal lacked the surprise, here we were presented with one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole meal. When we saw the earlier diners being served this gigantic “matzo”-ball look-a-like dish, we were wondering what it was. The size and the look of the ball put me off because it looked like a rather stomach-filling dish. Then we discovered that this was in fact beaten egg from the whipped cream charger, and then boiled for a minute or so, before serving on the soup dish, with a bacon broth. The egg-and-bacon flavour came through so well in the dish – it almost had the same magic as Fat Duck’s famous bacon and egg ice-cream.

(9) Bento box: Halibut broth with spinach and beansprout, Grilled quail in barbeque sauce and squash slaw, Charred bak choi with black sesame, Grilled rice roll with pork fat and coarse sea salt. Instead of serving these in a proper bento box, they were served in individual dishes but arranged on the counter as if it’s a bento box. The broth had a spicy taste to it (yes, again, spicy!) but at least it had a clean and refreshing taste to it. The quail tasted like roast quail in a typical Chinese restaurant but nevertheless it had an excellent flavour and the meat was tender. The bak choi was non-descriptive and did not even look that appealing – OK, it may be supposed to look like pickled vegetable. The rice roll was delicious with the guilty pleasure of pork fat.

(10) Ravioli stuffed with sour cheese, mushroom, chorizo, pickled tomato, sweetcorn and lime – Yet more spicyness introduced into another dish! The ravioli skin was rather thick, and the dish had a strong Mediterranean flavour that I thought for a moment that I was at a tapas bar!

(11) Maine lobster with lobster mushroom, cauliflower mushroom, daikon, charred ground bean and saffron sauce – the lobster was cooked sous vide but it came out slightly too chewy which was a shame, as the dish had a very interesting mixture of flavour and texture that could have worked so well.

(12) Rabbit pate, smoked cured lamb, smoked pig face, with pickled red onion and pickled cucumber mustard – a small platter of charcuterie, with spicy taste creeping in once again.

(13) Deep fried short rib with 2 cubes of watermelon compressed with rose wine, fried eggplant with red miso, and eggplant puree – The beef was nice and tender, if somewhat too greasy because of the deep-fat frying. Luckily the watermelon cubes (looked like gigantic red dice)  were refreshing and a welcoming addition to the dish to cut through some of that grease of the meat.

By this point I was already so full that the sight of another large piece of beef (for the last 4 customers) being prepared in front of me made me feel a bit nauseous.

(14) Goat cheese sorbet, with little layered jelly cubes of pomegranate, earl grey tea, honey and milk – while I was not a fan of goat cheese at all, this dish was rather pleasant and I enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because the sorbet did not have a very overpowering taste of goat cheese, and the chewy jelly cubes with the intense flavours really made the dish stand out.

(15) Shaved Hudson Valley foie gras with lychee and pine nut brittle, riesling wine jelly – it’s one of the signature dishes of this restaurant. I was not convinced that it worked – while I liked all the ingredients individually, together I didn’t think it was a happy combination. The strong flavour of the wine was competing with the other flavours also.

(16) Pineapple sorbet, with frozen pineapple slice, dried pineapple, and house-brewed root beer – this was refreshing, with the various textures of pineapple in this dish.

(17) Toasted rice cone with miso ice-cream, sticky rice and mochi – It was light and a nice way to finish the meal.

(18) Onigiri with kim chi – this was given to us to take home, but unfortunately I only rediscovered the onigiri about 3 days after the meal, so I did not dare to eat it.

On the whole, the meal was an interesting journey of flavours and combination of ingredients, and it’s a roller-coaster ride of impressive dishes to the “nothing-to-write-home-about” dishes. I was glad to have visited the place nevertheless. The final bill, including a small bottle of sake and tips, came to a whopping USD500 for two – I am still pondering whether it’s worth this much.

While the chefs were friendly enough and did take some opportunity to chat to us briefly when they are not busy preparing the dishes, the service from the restaurant manager was colder than liquid nitrogen. While I don’t expect the staff to be ultra-friendly, but a little smile wouldn’t hurt. The thing that left a bad final impression was that when we were leaving, she just initiated a social conversation with her colleague about  3 feet away and did not even acknowledge our departure, let alone saying farewell – not something I’d expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant. Rude?

Address: 163 First Avenue (Between 10th and 11th streets), New York City, United States
Telephone: No telephone

Opening Hours: Friday-Sunday: 12:00pm-12.45pm, Daily: 6.50pm – 10.00pm

Food: 8/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 2/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in August 2011]

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