Sunday, July 27, 2008

Momofuku Ko

ever since school let our for the summer, I've been waking up at 9:55am and jumping immediately onto my computer to click for reservations on the Momofuku Ko website. By 10:00:01, the 12 (or 14?) available seats for the day are all gone, so it's really about how lucky you are with your internet connection at that one fraction of a second you connect. Last week my efforts bore fruit, and Priya and I went to Momofuku Ko for our early anniversary dinner last night.

The restaurant is small and uncrowded--they seem to stagger the times people come, so at any given time there's only four or so couples eating (sometimes five), which makes it a lot easier on the chefs. they make a big deal about how there's "no waitstaff" and how the chefs do everything, but there are two hostesses who seat you, clear your place (sometimes the chefs do that when the hostesses are busy), and pour you wines and explain your wines and handle the checks and such. Here, this is the WHOLE restaurant (there were two more seats to our left, but that's it):

the prix fixe meal was a flat $100/person (up from the recent $85/person--hm! still cheap for what it is, though...) As a gift to me, Priya said she'd pay for the paired wine menu--we got the cheapest, at $50/person, although there were also higher levels at $85 and $150. we sat down at 6:15 and the meal got its start.

(note: taking pictures is STRICTLY FORBIDDEN at Ko, so we were unable to get photos of every course, and the ones we did sneak were kind of off-center and such. by the end we were more confident--if they kicked us out at that point, hey, free dinner!--so there are more, but forgive any lapses).

First course:
a small bowl of pork chicharrones dusted with chili powder. the chicharrones were not like any I've had before. rather than a brown, dense, deep-fried "comb" of fat, these were pure white and light and crispy like potato chips made out of solidifed bubbles. they were very salty and a bit spicy, but not greasy or even really porky at all

a small red sweet plum, cut in half and brushed with miso and soy glaze, and then grilled. I think it also had a ribbon of chives on top, but Priya swears hers had no such green. because the chef was right in front of us, we got to see her make half a dozen more over the course of the meal and she always put the green ribbon on it. QED. it was delicious and sweet, reminiscent of the fresh plums we'd bought from the mean Francophone farmer in Montreal, and the grilled/soy tastes perfectly mixed with the sweet to cut the salty, dry taste of the chicharrones.
Not my picture, but from another resourceful food blogger:

Second course (or possibly part of the first):
A tiny (golf-ball-sized) English muffin, smeared liberally with snow-white bay-leaf-infused pork fat (it looked like cream cheese as the chef slathered it on), grilled face down. This was fabulously delicious, porky in ways the chicharrones were not. Priya remarked that she was glad they weren't two full-sized English muffin halves, because it would kind of be too much, and I agree. it had a fantastic "throat feel/taste" as I swallowed, toasty and rough but also smooth and flavored from the grease.
Pairing: a fizzy rose

Third course:
Diver scallop, raw and sliced into thin disks, with spicy whipped buttermilk, white soy sauce, and poppy seed dressing. this was absolutely fantastic, texturally--the scallop was slimy, and the buttermilk sauce lubricated it and contributed a different kind of slimy, and then studded throughout were these crunch poppy seeds. I think it was probably the best "texture" dish of the whole night. the flavor was also great, not fishy at all but still hinting at the sea. I think this is sometimes done with fluke, but I prefer scallop.
Pairing: viogner

Fourth course:
Braised morels, little turnips, turnip greens, and white fungus in bacon dashi. The dashi was clear and basically tasted like smoked water with a umami undertone. The vegetables and fungi were tasty; this was a good 'intermediate' course, a gentle one to give our palates a rest, before the next...
Pairing: sake, Masumi Okuden

Fifth course:
Soft-boiled "hen egg", lightly smoked, with caviar, fingerling potato chips, and onion soubise, with sweet potato vinegar. This was one of the first courses that really knocked our socks off...there has been much hay made about Momofuku's description of the egg as a "hen egg" instead of just "egg" or even "chicken egg", but our chef just said "an egg". I even pressed him--what kind of egg, chicken?--and he was just like "yeah". but the people next to us got the "hen egg" description from the female chef. anyway, this dish was just tremendous. the liquid yellow yolk flavor mixing with the fishy caviar was amazing, and I kind of want to spoon some cheap salty caviar over my next over-easy egg. Priya loved the cute fingerling chips and the texture they added (although I found them to be kind of a distraction), and the zap of the vinegar when you got a bite of everything was welcome. yum!
Pairing: Scholium Projet sauvignon blanc. (incredibly fruity smell, like apple juice, but not especially sweet or fruit on the tongue)

Sixth course:
Possibly the best course of the night. This was sweet corn ravioli with crumbles of beef sausage, sweet pickled onions, cotija cheese, and sweet corn kernels on top. Priya pretty much gushed over this one, and it was entirely justified. The inside of the ravioli appeared to be made of sour cream and squeezed sweet corn juice (although two of my ravioli had a much more yellow inside, and one--and all of Priya's--looked more white, like a standard ricotta). a sauce of butter and corn broth was spooned over the whole thing. the chef kept mispronouncing the cheese as "cojita" instead of "cotija", but never mind. we resolved to try to make a dish like this ourselves, maybe next summer or later in August--it's obviously super-seasonal.
Pairing: Pinoit noir, 2005 Givry burgundy

Seventh course:
Strips of grilled rainbow trout over bacon puree, copious amounts of roasted almonds, marinated green and yellow beans, and breakfast radish. I absolutely loved this dish (and it was a pretty large amount of food), although Priya peeled the skin off her trout strips and said it was only okay. But somehow the balance of flavors was exactly right--the fishy trout (plus skin) in the same bite as a crunchy roasted almond with a dab of bacon puree...I just couldn't get enough, and ate Priya's discarded skin with almonds as she tried to finish her dish.
Pairing: Allagash white ale (only a shot glass, really; I appreciated the small tastes given with every other pairing, but I thought for this fishy, hearty grilled entree, they should've split the bottle between us).

Eighth course:
We had fallen behind the other three or four couples who started around the same time as us, so we got to see food being prepared about a course ahead of where we actually were. As we were getting served this course--a sweet desserty thing--everyone else was on the next course, eating something big and meaty. Priya had read that giving a meat after the desserty thing was common, though, so we weren't worried.

this was lychee gelee and pieces of lychee, with pinenut brittle pieces, completely smothered in a huge pile of grated frozen foie gras torchon. a really interesting combo that would not exactly be at home at (but would be neighbours with) La Pied du Cuchon in Montreal, we found it to have an extremely interesting texture/flavor combo. the salty fattiness of the frozen foie gras melting into the sweet jelly taste of the lychee, combined with the hidden crunch of the pinenut brittle, was great. we both agreed, however, that more pinenut brittle was necessary, because bites taken without it were a little too strange (all mush and melt).
Pairing: Dessert sake, didn't quite catch the name...something like "komoken fu"? lychee flavor.

Ninth course:
Muscovy duck (three parts: loin, breast, and leg), charred Chinese long beans, pickled cherries, and fresh chestnuts. This course was a contender with the corn ravioli as Possibly The Best Thing Ever. The duck had an amazing crispy skin on top; biting the soft, warm, deliciously flavored meat with a piece of skin crunching on top was incredible (Priya compared the skin on the duck to "the frosting on the cake," an accurate description of how you need both to make the taste work perfectly). The sour cherry sauce and the cherries themselves were lovely, and the fresh chestnuts were a brisk pleasantry...I'd only had the canned water chestnuts mixed in my food, and the difference with these fresh chunks of chestnut were profound. Priya doesn't even really like duck and thought this was fantastic.
Pairing: Rouge of some sort

Tenth course:
Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) sorbet over mint julep crumbles. A good little palate cleanser before dessert. Priya guessed that the mint julep crumble was made by soaking cake or bread in actual mint juleps and then dehydrating it, and the chef confirmed it a couple of minutes later. Still, I found the crumbles not crispy enough for me, nor quite minty enough...the sorbet was nice, very iced-tea-y (and I love iced tea).

Eleventh course:
What I'd been waiting for all night: cereal-milk panna cotta over a schmear of avocado, with salty cornflakes and a chocolate-hazelnet flake. I'd read about the famous cereal-milk panna cotta, of course, in which the chefs make the dessert out of milk in which cereal had been soaking, and it really lived up to the hype. I'm glad we got this instead of the fried-apple-pie option that I'd read sometimes replaces it. Really the best panna cotta I've ever had, and the flavor combo with the salty, fatty avocado was inspired.
Pairing: Reymos sparkling Muscatel, Spain (valencia). kind of like carbonated perfume--sweet, though!

All told, this was one of the best meals I've ever had, and the price (under $400 for tax, tip, alcohol, etc.) was quite low, compared to what else is available in this city. Really, none of the hype I've heard about this place was overblown. I'd love to try to go again in a year when we'd be assured of getting some different dishes...I never got to try the famous braised short rib, for example. overall, it was a 2.5 hr meal that was worth the price (I don't know if anything is worth the reservation drama, though).

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