Whip me with a wet noodle, if you must. I suppose I deserve some kind of penance for the following confession: Until recently, I had never been to Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Blame it on the lines, which at dinner times often snake down First Avenue. I was eager to visit, but not eager enough to go that far out of my way, and then wait for a bar stool. (Reservations aren’t taken, except for the large-format chicken meal, which feeds 4–8 people. I saw an order go out while I was there: four people would need to be awfully hungry to finish it.)
I rectified this shocking omission in my culinary travels on a recent Friday afternoon, when I dropped in for a late lunch at about 3:30pm. There was still plenty of business, given the oddness of the hour, but it was delightfully uncrowded. If it were always like this, I might come more often. But if it were always like this, it wouldn’t be Noodle Bar.
The Momofuku story is so well known that it hardly needs re-telling. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute, David Chang worked his way through the fine-dining kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Mercer Kitchen), Tom Colicchio (Craft), and Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud). Then, he left fine dining and opened a noodle shop.
The original Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004 with 27 seats, was such a hit that Chang followed it up with Momofuku Ssäm Bar in 2006. After another two years, Noodle Bar moved into its present 65-seat space down the street. Momofuku Ko, Chang’s Michelin two-star spot, moved into the old Noodle Bar. The empire now includes four restaurants, a chain of dessert shops, and a cocktail bar in New York; outposts in Toronto and Sydney; and a culinary lab.
Noodle Bar remains the humblest of Chang’s restaurants, with a menu focused mainly on steamed buns and bowls of noodles. But to call it humble is to under-sell it. The open kitchen is enormous for a mere ramen shop. His staff do impeccable work; the ingredients are first-rate.
I don’t know how often the menu changes, but it’s reprinted every day. (Click on the image, at right, for a larger picture.) The online menu is updated regularly—not quite daily—but doesn’t include the prices, an omission that needs to change.
There’s not a dish over $16, although beverages can swell the tab: before I was done, I’d spent $60 on lunch, including tax and tip. I’ve mentioned this before, but the idea that Chang’s restaurants are cheap eats is largely a myth.
Granted, no one forced me to order two of the insanely good slushies on a warm summer day ($10 a pop; above left), made with soju, a Korean beverage comparable to vodka. There are two flavors offered, grape or the “yuzu palmer,” a variation on the Arnold Palmer, a mix of iced tea and lemonade, made here with yuzu, a Korean citrus juice.
The cuisine remains, as it has always been, nouveau Asian, liberally interpreted. On the website, Chang continues to describe the food as “American.” The reasons utterly elude me, but there has always been a disingenuous side to everything he says.
Pork buns are Noodle Bar’s signature dish (served also at Ssäm Bar). I’ve had them before, so I ordered the Brisket Buns ($12; above left), served only at lunch. They’re insanely good, featuring moist rectangles of fatty, smoked brisket.
I was warned that the Chilled Spicy Noodles ($14; above right) are really spicy, and they are. But I must be overlooking something, because they weren’t chilled, having instead the consistency of a warm angel-hair pasta, served with Sichuan spiced sausage, spinach and cashews. The only utensil provided is a spoon. I wrestled with chopsticks for a few bites, then asked for a fork. It’s an intense and amply-portioned dish, which I couldn’t finish.
Service has long been a weakness of the Momofuku restaurants—so much so, that I long believed Chang was playing a joke on all of us, trying to guess just how bad he could make it while laughing all the way to the bank. Perhaps he has finally learned that service matters.
Anyhow, it’s hard to judge from one lunch at practically the most uncrowded time of day. But I can report that a host greeted me warmly and immediately, showed me to my seat at the bar, and even took my umbrella. The rest of the meal service was attentive and efficient.
Most of the seating is at the bar or communal tables on wooden stools: I suppose that Chang can’t compromise all of his principles at once. And this isn’t a place where you’re going to linger. But it would certainly justify repeat visits, if the lines at dinner weren’t so long.
Momofuku Noodle Bar (171 First Avenue between 10th & 11th Streets, East Village)
Food: Nouveau Asian, very liberally interpreted.
Service: No longer the weakness it used to be
Ambiance: Wooden stools and mostly communal seating