Entries in David Chang (23)


Momofuku Noodle Bar

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.

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Má Pêche

It’s a bit sad to watch David Chang’s team at Má Pêche fumble their way around. Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in the East Village practically defined their era in the mid-aughts. They remain crowded and popular today.

It hasn’t gone as well in midtown, where Chang was tone deaf to a clientele comprised of mainly tourists, shoppers, and business travelers, in a neighborhood that hardly anyone considers a nightlife destination.

If it were a standalone place, Má Pêche would be closed by now. But it’s in the Chambers Hotel, which guarantees a captive audience. A hotel without dining is considerably less useful to prospective guests, and it would take many months to build a new restaurant. I’m sure the Chambers would be loath to see it go. Nevertheless, I’ll be surprised if Má Pêche is still around in five years.

Chang has re-tooled Má Pêche several times since it opened in 2009, but nothing has quite done the trick. There’s a regular parade of offers and special deals, to say nothing of constant infotising on Eater.com. And yet, the place was half empty at 7:00pm on a recent Saturday evening. It doesn’t look good.

It’s hard to itemize all of the changes, or when exactly they took place. Reservations and dessert are now available (they weren’t originally). The huge X-shaped communal table has been broken up into several smaller ones. On a prior visit, a hostess insisted that I sit at the counter, even though the tables were almost all empty. Now, no one sits at that counter.

Paul Carmichael replaced founding chef Tien Ho in October 2011. The menu started to drift away from Ho’s faux Vietnamese, and by April 2012 it had evolved to “American cuisine” (menu left; click for a larger version).

If this is American, it’s not any particular idiom you’ll recognize. Chang has long claimed to serve “American food” at all of his restaurants. It has never really been true, except in the loosest sense.

Remnants of the former approach remain. There are still chopsticks at every table, even though they’re not needed for any of the food, and they’re hardly usable for most of it. You’ll have to ask for silverware.

The menu is divided into several categories: “Raw” ($15–18), Small Plates ($13–18), Large Plates ($29–32), “For Two” ($40, $75), and Vegetables ($10–14). The server rather unhelpfully suggested 1½ to 2½ dishes per person, which is a rather wide range of the amount of food and what you’ll pay. We erred on the lower end of that range.

Portions are rather dainty, and a couple might even be considered insulting.


Half-a dozen oysters (above left) were $20. A sliver of cheese (above center) was $6, and so were bread and butter (above right). That butter was a superb specimen, one of two kinds offered. They could serve it at Per Se. The bread, warm and crunchy, was wonderful, and seconds came out without extra charge. But in the context of the prices here, it should come with dinner.


Trout ($15; above left) and Soft Shell Crab ($18; above center) were small but acceptable portions. Duck ($32; above right) was downright offensive, with just three modest slices. It was all pretty good, but portioned for a health spa. A solo diner could have placed our order, and gone home hungry. Our party of three shared it, with no indication from staff that it was on the light side.

Servers are generally more casually dressed than the customers. In fact, there seems to be no staff dress code at all: t-shirts, torn cutoff jeans, you name it. I don’t personally care what the staff wear, but the approach here doesn’t quite fit the neighborhood.

And at a restaurant where the bill can easily soar above $100 a head, can’t they do better than a stack of DIY paper napkins on each table? What’s with serving martinis in juice glasses? Even the server couldn’t help but be embarrassed: “Sorry, we don’t have martini glasses.”

Service was eager and friendly—but not fast, attentive, or competent. We were warned that plates would come out family style. The oysters, bread, cheese, and trout, appeared with alacrity, but we waited about 30 minutes for the last two plates, as our order was stuck behind a “large format” dinner (10 people, $450, for lamb, chicken, and veggies).

We were ignored for long stretches: plates weren’t promptly cleared or replaced. No one noticed we were ready for a fresh round of drinks. When we finally ordered those drinks, they didn’t come out until we were done eating. There didn’t seem to be any hierarchy in the dining room: you’ll give your order to one server, and then another asks again.

For all that, there are the bones of a good restaurant at Má Pêche. This was my fifth visit, and if it lasts long enough I’ll probably go again. The food, although overpriced, is pretty good. Poor service can change with the day of the week, and the staff clearly want to be helpful, when they can and know how to do so.

I don’t have much hope for Má Pêche. It looks like David Chang is just phoning it in.

Má Pêche (15 W. 56th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: An American/Asian mash-up with excellent American-sourced ingredients
Service: Eager but inattentive and poorly organized
Ambiance: A striking, high-ceilinged dining room; casual, perhaps to a fault

Rating: ★
Why? Food is better than the West Midtown average, although over-priced


The Burger Special at Má Pêche

For its inaugural Burger Week, Eater.com asked five restaurants that don’t ordinarily serve burgers to put a special burger on their menus.

For the record, the participating restaurants were Chinatown Brasserie, Kin Shop, Maialino, SHO Shaun Hergatt, and Má Pêche. All five chefs did a great job (or so it seems from the descriptions) of inventing a burger that looks like it belongs on their respective menus.

Most of the restaurants are offering the new burgers only at lunch, and only through the end of next week. They all sound enticing, but there’s not enough time—especially at lunch—for me to get to them all.

Chinatown Brasserie’s Peking Duck Burger was the one I craved the most, but Má Pêche’s Lemongrass–Chili Butter Burger was the most conveniently located, so I tried that one. The proceeds are being donated to Edible Schoolyard, a fact mentioned in the Eater post, but not on the menu. The price was $16, typical these days for a custom blend burger in Manhattan.

The beef is a Pat LaFrieda blend (aren’t they all?) of chuck and short rib, with a lower fat content than some LaFrieda blends. Eater documented the preparation and ingredients in stunning detail (which means I don’t have to). Chef Tien Ho’s Asian-accented condiments left a slightly bitter aftertaste, making it a very good, but not great, addition to the burger pantheon.

Incidentally, the restaurant was packed at 1:00 p.m., the busiest I have ever seen it.


Review Recap: Má Pêche

Today, Sam Sifton drops the expected two-spot on David Chang’s midtown transplant, Má Pêche:

Má Pêche is the first Momofuku restaurant truly suitable for dining with those the Internet calls the olds. (Though like some of its forebears, it takes no reservations.) Eating there is a little like visiting your formerly bohemian artist friend, whom you haven’t seen since he signed with Deitch and bought a double loft in TriBeCa.

The restaurant opened slowly over the course of this spring, not serving dinner for months, gaining its footing, figuring itself out. Now there is even a pre-theater menu. . . .

The food is not quite as precise and magical as it often is in the downtown restaurants, but it is recognizably Changish and strong: big flavors tied together with herbs and acids.

This is a good recovery for a restaurant that stumbled out of the gate, and picked up some decidedly un-Changian mixed reviews. The staff at Eater.com HQ, who are more plugged into the Momoverse than the chef’s own mother, reported that over the last month or so, “Chang has personally been in the kitchen almost constantly with executive chef Tien Ho and that the little tweaks made to the menu have paid off.”

I wonder if Sifton was duped:

Service at the restaurant is of an extremely high standard masked by a casual mien, as is the norm in Mr. Chang’s shops. Cory Lane, who runs the service program for all of them, and Colin Alevras, the antic beverage director, who came to the restaurant from DBGB, patrol Má Pêche with grace and good humor, seeing around corners, anticipating needs. (What, you didn’t realize you wanted to drink some coriander-ish Leipziger beer with your steak and sausage?) Their staff members follow their leads.

Eater says that Sifton was recognized at least five times (I told you they’re plugged in). Maybe, just maybe, the average customer doesn’t get that level of service. I certainly didn’t. The chef who claims his service is more “democratic,” in fact separates his customers into the “somebodies” and the “nobodies,” just like everyone else in this business.

Sifton tweaks Chang’s nose for not serving dessert—a decision that, like the no-reservation policy, I believe is destined to be reversed. It made sense at the perpetually-packed Momofuku Ssäm Bar, where Chang wants to cycle people in and out of their bar stools as quickly as possible—service be damned. If the restaurant is seldom full (as seems to be the case here), they might as well allow guests to linger, and make a bit more revenue per check.

Sifton wonders whether Chang “was aiming for a place at the highest level of the mainstream,” rather than what Má Pêche is now: “a very good restaurant for a Midtown business lunch, a celebratory steak dinner or a drink and some snacks after work.” We’ll find out.

In our view, the main reason for Má Pêche’s faults is that David Chang is stubborn.


Dropping In: Má Pêche

The Momofuku phenomenon has largely passed me by. Mind you, I like David Chang’s restaurants, having visited them seven times, in all. But I never bought into the unstinting bouquets of rapture that floated his way, from people whom I believed knew better.

That said, I’d love to have been able to drop in on the East Village Momofukus more often, during the era when Chang’s adoring faithful were teary-eyed over the latest new dish his chefs had created, on practically a daily basis. I’m sure many of those dishes were very good indeed, but that part of town was too far away for me to visit with any regularity—especially given Chang’s no-reservations policy, which meant one was not even assured of getting a seat.

The Momofukologists say that the East Village places have lost a step (though they remain packed at prime times). Chang himself is now tending a much larger empire. Tien Ho, the day-to-day chef at Ssäm Bar during its heyday, is now at Má Pêche. As I mentioned after my first visit, I find the cuisine at Má Pêche far too timid, but I assume Ho hasn’t forgotten how to cook. As it is on my commuting path, I’m willing to give it a few more shots. I keep hoping to see the inspiration that made Momofuku what it was. I haven’t found it yet.

Má Pêche is a Momofuku you can get into. My experience, and everyone else’s, is that the place is never full, or even close. Just a day after telling the Times that his no-resy free-for all is more “democratic,” Chang started taking them on the web, though only for lunch and prix fixe dinner from 5–7 p.m. I suspect that more will follow. Midtown diners tend to want reservations, and if the restaurant is empty, you might as well give customers what they want.

When I arrived last Friday evening, at around 6:05 p.m., the host said, “I can seat you at the bar or the raw bar.” I thought, perhaps they’re finally busy. I came down the stairs to find a dining room two-thirds empty. They couldn’t possibly have believed that all those seats would miraculously fill up—which, of course, they did not. So why offer me only a backless bar stool, when the long communal table was available.

One can speculate endlessly the reasons they might have had for putting me all alone, at a corner of the raw bar. Charitably, they might have believed a solo diner preferred the bar, but in that case I’d suggest they ask. A friend allowed that perhaps they thought it would look silly to have a solo diner alone at that long, X-shaped table. Perhaps, but they ought to be thinking of what the customer wants, especially when they have vast real estate that clearly is not filling up. Let’s just say they need to get a lot smarter.

Onto the food. I started with the pork ribs (left), which came out almost instantly. I take no issue with their being obviously pre-made, but they were slightly dried out. Pork spring rolls (right) were fresh as a daisy, as if the vegetables had been picked that day. I had a glass of wine, which was one of the stingiest pours I have seen—probably around three ounces.

Má Pêche remains a promising restaurant that needs a lot of work.


Má Pêche

Note: This is a review under founding chef Tien Ho, who has since left the restaurant. The new chef, Paul Carmichael, is introducing an American menu.

David Chang is the unquestioned King of the East Village, with four insanely-popular Momofuku restaurants to his name, holding six New York Times stars and two Michelin stars between them.

Does Chang’s hipster ethos work in a midtown luxury boutique hotel? That was the question when he took over the former Town space in the Chambers Hotel on West 56th Street.

Town had long ceased to be culinarily relevant when it closed in April 2009, but at least it offered the high-end, French-inflected fine dining experience that guests at the Chambers would expect. Chang’s new landlord probably wanted nothing to do with a name like “Momofuku,” which to the unanointed reads like Mother-Fuck-You.

So Chang settled on Má Pêche (Momofuku means “peach”), which gives the surface impression of bourgeois respectability. What he built, however, is “Momofuku for Tourists,” a restaurant that resembles his East Village empire the way Disney’s Epcot resembles France or Italy.

The only trouble is, so far the tourists haven’t shown up. On a Friday evening at 8:00 p.m., Má Pêche was two-thirds empty. During our meal, we saw four separate parties enter the dining room, take one look, and then leave.

What could have turned them off? Perhaps it’s the huge, X-shaped communal table that dominates the room, a feature of many New York restaurants, but probably unfamiliar to the businessmen from Chicago or the honeymooners from Des Moines.

Má Pêche, unlike the other Momofukus, does have detached tables and chairs with backs, but the communal table is the first thing you see. If Chang knows what’s good for him, he will get rid of it.

Like all of Chang’s downtown places (except Momofuku Ko), Má Pêche doesn’t take reservations. That policy works when you’re getting enough foot traffic to remain constantly full. And what about the nonsense of serving dessert only at the adjoining “Milk Bar”? It works in the East Village. At a midtown luxury hotel, it’s a recipe for failure.

Chang apparently realized that a midtown crowd will expect better service than at his East Village places. A memo to staff was leaked to Eater.com, describing the service rules in detail. Our server was clearly struggling, practically reciting them to us as he served the wine, to ensure he hadn’t left anything out. But if they’re so persnickity, why are there still paper napkins, when dinner for two will easily run up to $150 or more, especially if you order from the over-priced, unimpressive wine list?

The chef de cuisine is Tien Ho, who used to run the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. The menu is written in a French–Vietnamese pidgin that I suspect many customers will find utterly baffling. The food seemed to us no more Vietnamese than Chang’s East Village restaurants are Korean.

None of this would matter if the food at Má Pêche were anywhere near as good as it is downtown. The four dishes we tried were shockingly insipid, unadventurous: bland. There is very little to tempt the original Momofuku clientele to make the trip uptown, while those who never bought into Chang’s act (or never heard of it) will be wondering, “Where’s the beef?”

Actually, beef is the one distinctive offering: a traditional Vietnamese “Beef 7 Ways” dinner for 6–10 people that runs $85 a head, and is currently the only option for which reservations are taken. But this certainly won’t attract tourists and business travelers, who won’t know all the tricks of visiting the Momofuku website, poised to click on the green check mark at exactly 10:00 a.m., a week in advance.

Mang tây gribiche ($18; above left) is typical of the menu’s timidity. Asparagus salad, crab, and egg yolk sounded promising, but the egg tasted like the egg salad that comes out of a buffet line, and I didn’t taste much crab at all.

Chou-fleur chiên ($12; above right) was the dish I ordered and enjoyed on my last visit, but this time the fried cauliflower was a flat, soggy mess, and the curry was so weak as to be almost non-existent.

Aloyau de porc ($36; above left) is the most expensive of the entrées. You get plenty for your money, as it’s a twenty-ounce pork porterhouse that two can easily share. But it was curiously flavorless and was sliced too thin, causing it to slightly dry out in the process. However, we liked the fingerling potatoes and English peas that accompanied it.

Bun du riz ($18; above right), or rice noodles with spicy pork, had great potential if only the pork were spicy. Instead, it almost completely failed to register.

Má Pêche today is like a mirror-image SD26, the former uptown luxury Italian restaurant that is now trying (and failing) to appeal to the downtown crowd. We suspect that David Chang is more adaptable than SD26’s Tony May.

Adapt he must. If he wants to bring in the tourists and businessmen, he needs to ditch the communal table and paper napkins, take reservations, and serve a menu they’ll understand. If he wants to attract New Yorkers, he needs to take some culinary risks. If he wants to do both…well, that just might be impossible.

Má Pêche (15 W. 56th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *

Ma Peche on Urbanspoon


First Look: Má Pêche 

Has there ever been a more drawn-out opening than Má Pêche?

Oh, there are plenty of places that are announced and then take forever to get past the plywood stage. But Má Pêche has been serving lunch for almost six months! Then they added breakfast. Then a bar menu.

To keep the critics out, they’ve studiously avoided serving dinner. Once you serve dinner, you’re a real restaurant, and that means Greene, Richman, Cheshes, Sutton, Sietsema, Platt, and Sifton are on their way. No such compunction applies to bloggers.

I suspect that David Chang isn’t the first chef who has dreamt of soft-opening for months at a stretch while they get their act together. Apparently he has the financial backing that allows him to do it. Good for him. Meanwhile, the Chambers Hotel hits the jackpot, with more attention in the last half-year than it has had in the last half-dozen.

Má Pêche is right out of the Momofuku mold: asian spices, local ingredients, French technique, and a minimum of formality. He has tweaked his forumula for the transfer uptown. The supposedly Vietnamese-inspired menu seems a bit more Frenchified, the staff a bit more professional. But only a bit. Má Pêche seems about as Vietnamese as Momofuku downtown was Korean.

I stopped in just for a snack, ordering the chou-fleur chiên, or fried cauliflower with curry, mint, and fish sauce ($12). I’m no Momofukologist, but this seemed right out of David Chang’s playbook.

True to form, the menu advises that the cauliflower is from Satur Farms, Long Island. It’s an excellent dish—better for sharing, as that much cauliflower gets cloying after a while. But this is a bar menu, after all.

There are about a dozen dishes available— nothing like a full menu, but certainly more than enough to put together a terrific meal. The cocktail list consists of classics, slightly tweaked, such as the Seven Spice Sour that I had. At $14, they aren’t giving them away.

The bar space isn’t especially pleasant, with the countertop bisected by an unsightly column. If this wasn’t a Momofuku restaurant, it would be nobody’s favorite bar. Even now, based on reports and my own observation, you can basically walk in anytime. That surely won’t last.


Where David Chang Got The Idea

Here’s William Grimes in Appetite City (p. 40), describing a couple of downtown oyster saloons called Dorlans, circa the 1860s and ’70s:

No uptown rival, though, could cut into the business of the downtown restaurants, whose mystique grew with the years. Ambiance could not explain the attraction: both establishments were spartan, dispensing with such niceties as napkins, tablecloths, and butter knives. This did not deter fashionable New Yorkers. “Fastidious ladies, who at home dwell in splendid boudoirs and sit in perfumed chambers, take Dorlan’s [sic] on their way from the opera, for a stew or saddle-rock roast,” wrote one observer in 1868. “Gentlemen who have rosewood tables on Turkey carpets, eat off porcelain and silver ware, whose dining-rooms are perfumed with the choicest flowers, thankfully accept a stool without a back to it at Dorlan’s, and are jostled by the crowd. The belles and madames of the upper ten often stand in a row awaiting their turn.


A Chef's Plea for Half-Stars at the Times

Frank Bruni delivered a shock this week — deliberately, I am sure — by awarding three stars to Corton just seven days after awarding three stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Three-star reviews are pretty rare. There have been just 32 of them in Bruni’s 4½ years on the job. So to give out two of them in a row is unusual. He has never done that before.

Now, the Ssäm Bar review was totally discretionary. No particular event compelled him to write it. By doing so when he knew Corton was coming the following Wednesday, he was clearly trying to make a meta-statement about the very different paths to excellence that these two restaurants have followed.

But the Ssäm Bar review upsets many in the industry, not just because David Chang is ridiculously over-exposed, but because it makes nonsense of the rating system. The same chef’s Momofuku Ko, which is clearly more ambitious and accomplished by any measure, also carries three stars from Frank Bruni. What is the point of a rating system, if it fails to distinguish different levels of excellence and accomplishment?

Over at the Feedbag, an anonymous chef suggests that the Times should add half-stars to its system, to better distinguish between different levels:

The grading of restaurants lately does not make sense. How can a restaurant as refined as Eleven Madison Park, Picholine and Corton fit on the same level as restaurants as casual as A Voce, Scarpetta and the very baffling Momofuku Ssam? I am not saying they aren’t all great restaurants in their own right, but they are not equals. By installing a half star, one could differentiate between them. In my opinion, Blue Hill, Scarpetta and Craft should be 3 stars, Corton, Picholine, and Eleven Madison, 3 and a half, and Momofuku Ssam, 2 and a half. By grouping all of these establishments under the same 3 stars, they are misleading patrons. Isn’t that supposed to be the idea of these reviews? By awarding three stars to restaurants so disparate, they’re making the Times review system meaningless, and that hurts everybody.

We agree that half-stars allow the critic to discriminate better between different types of restaurants. That’s why reviews published on this blog use half-stars.

But ultimately, whether your rating system has 4 grading levels or 100, it can be no better than the person assigning them. I have no idea what ratings Bruni would have given out if his system allowed for half-stars. However, it is poor judgment that has created this mess in the first place, and poor judgment is not rectified by adding levels to the system.

Bruni seems to be applying a bizarre “quality divided by price” formula to assign stars. On that line of reasoning, Ko and Ssäm Bar are rated identically, for although Ko is better, it also costs more. In his defense, Bruni can point out that the Times rating system expressly states that prices are “taken into consideration,” though no past critic has done it quite the way he does.

The same perverted logic allows Bruni to justify awarding three stars to the Bar Room at the Modern, when the obviously superior dining room at the same establishment has just two. We strongly suspect that if the Times had half-stars in its rating system, Bruni would nevertheless have made the same error.

Our own view is that ratings should reflect excellence, period. The fact that excellence costs more is utterly irrelevant to the rating. It may be that some diners either cannot afford the best restaurants, or that they prefer to spend their time and money in other ways. But if Momofuku Ssäm Bar is inferior to Momofuku Ko—as it clearly is—the fact that one is cheaper does not make them equal.


The Payoff: Momofuku Ko

Today, Frank Bruni concludes the early review cycle for Momofuku Ko with a strangely mixed three-star review:

You don’t get start-to-finish enchantment, but that’s not a function of insufficient coddling. It’s a function of where you set the bar for a restaurant that must master only a cluster of dishes on a given night, and that compels you to surrender so fully to its authority.

Under those terms there’s a promise of unwavering transcendence, and Ko in its early months serves a few dishes that merely intrigue along with others that utterly enrapture. It also falls prey to some inconsistency.

At least half the review was about matters other than the food: the newfangled reservation system; the minimalist aesthetic; the pared-down service. When he does discuss the food, he finds it surprisingly uneven.

In a sense, this was a “review by subtraction.” Bruni started with the unwritten presumption that Momofuku Ko was gunning for four stars — a presumption certainly bolstered by Adam Platt’s review in New York — and proceeded to explain why “Deification may have come prematurely to Mr. Chang.”

Bruni was also hemmed in by his two-star reviews of Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Degustation, the most similar non-Chang restaurant in Manhattan. Ko is better than both.

It seems that there’s a “bonus star” available for any restaurant that confirms Bruni’s wholly unwarranted assumptions about what the younger generation of diners is purportedly seeking in a restaurant:

Ko pares down stuffy atmospherics in a particularly thorough way. It wagers that for a younger generation more focused on food than on frippery, a scruffy setting, small discomforts and little tyrannies are acceptable — preferable, even — if they’re reflected in the price.

Bruni’s reviews have improved markedly over the years. We could almost become a fan if these tiresome rants were sent to the cutting-room floor, where they belong.

We and Eater both took the obvious three-star bet, paying just even money. We both win $1 on our hypothetical bets.

              Eater       NYJ
Bankroll $87.50   $98.67
Gain/Loss +1.00   +1.00
Total $88.50   $99.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 39–16   39–16