One of our first stops when we moved to New York was Momofuku. That was before Momofuku Ssam, before our beloved Milk Bar, before Momofuku Ko–when David Chang was a new and exciting chef, but not the phenomenon he is now. In fact, when we sat at the noodle bar’s counter, he was working on the line and actually cooked and served us some delicious green beans. Since then, he’s built a mini-empire in our neighborhood; the noodle bar moved a few doors down on First Avenue and the counter we sat at is now part of Momofuku Ko, which is Chang’s rendition of fine-dining.

Reservations at Ko are some of the hardest reservations to get. Partly because of an egalitarian–and yes, annoying–online-only reservation system whereby time slots are released each day at 10 a.m., one week at a time, for a single date. There’s actually no phone in the restaurant. Since it opened (two years ago!) Ashley and I have both had independent streaks of logging in to see if we could get a spot–to no avail. But finally, last week, a spot opened up for Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. We jumped at the chance.

{a sample of the maddening reservation system with the elusive green check}
Ko is Chang’s idea of what a top restaurant should be: inventive, difficult food of the highest quality, but served without most of the old-guard conceits of high-end dining (i.e. that customer-is-king, thanks for spending your hard-earned money with us warmth). Yeah… there’s just a bit of attitude… Chang has said something to the effect that friendly service and good food is mutually exclusive (hmph!). But his point that hospitality can be used as a distraction is taken.

He has removed the waiter; you sit at the bar and the food is handed to you directly from the chefs, who cook in front of you in an open-galley kitchen. There is no menu, and no hyper-detailed description of each dish and its preparation. For contrast: at Daniel, Ashley was brought a stool for her purse and we were told about each cheese by a waiter with a faux-French accent; here the room was devoid of decorative elements (there are no tablecloths as there is no table and there are no backs on the basic bar stools) and interrupting the chefs at work would seem frowned upon.

 Chang is trying to say, “My food stands alone.” According to just about every food publication I’ve read, the consensus has been that it does (see: Gourmet and New York Times).

We sat at the bar and watched the chefs prepared the very detailed plates (sometimes to the level of tweezers), and I tried not to laugh as they would tell us with a remarkably flat affect the broad strokes of the meal. Although it seemed like it wasn’t allowed, Ashley would ask, “what is this purple sauce?” The answer was almost always given in one word (“licorice”). We shared a drink pairing, which was remarkable especially because it included beer, sake, and sherry, in addition to the traditional wine–and why shouldn’t it?!

It was strange to be carried through the meal with no sense of what was coming next; everything was an option as all we’d noted was “no food allergies.” We had no idea where we were going at any given time. The only dish we were expecting was what has become the house-specialty: frozen foie gras shaved over sweet lychees, Riesling gelee, and pine nut brittle. The shavings are piled up like snow that then melts on the back of your tongue–wow!

Everything was fantastic and we tried together to recall everything when we came home (see crazy list at bottom).

Chang is right to think that his dishes don’t require any fancy trappings or courting of the customer, BUT there are some big caveats. The 12-seat bar means that you’re close to the cooking (good) but that you’re also close to your neighbors (bad, in our case). The girl next to us kept trying to pick a fight with her date and asked at nearly every chance whether this was dessert yet. No distractions from the dishes? Not exactly. And, in the end, I wished that rather than have all the courses in one blow-out (they recently raised their prices and we were surprised upon arrival–and with no cancellations allowed within 24 hours as you will be charged–there was no going back), I could return multiple times and savor each dish without feeling so much sticker-shock.  And I want to know the details.

Our meal in ten courses, as best as we can recall:

(1) lobster turnip cake with zucchini/wasabi puree; beef (corned-style) with bits of fried broccoli and licorice puree; pork rinds; black pepper biscuit with reduced-sake between layers (like honey)–all with brut champagne; (2) Long Island Fluke in spicy poppyseed and buttermilk sauce–with Foxen Chenin Blanc; (3) Spanish Mackerel with horseradish, radish greens, rice cake bits, and orange zest–with a dry white wine; (4) Toasted brioche with bone marrow, pearl onions, chives, and a consommé of gruyere–served with a lager; (5) smoked egg with caviar over sweet-potato vinegar, something of sweet onions (stewed), and dime-sized potato chips–with dry sherry and a glass of sake; (6) skate crusted with almonds over olives and cauliflower, served aside a pool of frothy almond-milk–with white wine; (7) aforementioned shaved foie gras dish–with a late harvest Gewurztraminer (8) Duck breast over stewed Chinese greens (like bok choy), raw turnips and pumpernickel dust; side of pate made from the duck’s legs, liver, and heart, with pistachios–with red wine; (9) spiced white wine sorbet over asian pear and elderflower–with a pear cider from Normandy; (10) Pretzel Panna Cotta, Mustard Grain Gelee, Root Beer ice cream with Rye bread crumbs–with an oatmeal stout from Vermont.

(There’s a no-photo rule, so the top two photos are from here; third is from here; fourth is from here)

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