Entries in Momofuku Ko (9)


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

Rolling the Dice: Momofuku Ko

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni delivers his most anticipated verdict in quite a long while. The beneficiary, or victim, is Momofuku Ko. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 15-1
One Star: 6-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: EVEN √√
Four Stars: 12-1

A Bit of Trivia: On August 3, 1990, Bryan Miller of the Times upgraded Bouley to four stars. The next new member of that exclusive club was not named until December 10, 1993, when Ruth Reichl upgraded Chanterelle. That 175-week drought is the longest in the 45-year history of the New York Times star system.

Do you know how long it has been since Frank Bruni named a new four-star restaurant? Remarkably enough, the last new entrant to the club was Masa, reviewed on December 29, 2004 — exactly 175 weeks ago.

Tomorrow, regardless of what he does, Bruni will match a record of futility not seen since the 1990s; and he will set a new record if he awards anything less than four stars to Momofuku Ko.

We do not suggest that Bruni is aware of the record that he is about to reach. But he must be aware that he is grading on a four-star scale, and it has been three years and four months since a new restaurant earned the top grade. He must, in a sense, be itching to pull the trigger, while also being aware that four stars mustn’t be doled out lightly.

It’s an open question whether Bruni has called his past shots correctly. We think he under-rated several promising candidates, though we cannot say for sure that any of them deserved four stars. The atrophied state of high-end dining is in any case newsworthy—and something he must be thinking about—regardless of whether it’s Bruni’s own fault, the market’s fault, or some combination of the two.

The Skinny: Frank Bruni’s rating of Momofuku Ko will depend on his interpretation of this little blurb, which appears at the bottom of every New York Times review:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. (emphasis supplied)

Bruni has frequently awarded two stars, and occasionally even three stars, to objectively middle-brow restaurants that he regarded as “good values for the price.” But to the best of our knowledge, no Times critic, including Bruni, has ever taken price into consideration at the four-star level. A top-rated restaurant has to be extraordinary in the absolute sense, not merely “good for the price.”

We think Bruni has dined at enough four-star restaurants to recognize that Ko is not one of them. It is a remarkable restaurant in many ways, and we have come (quite reluctantly) to the view that David Chang deserves most of the laurels that have been tossed his way. But let’s get real. Ignoring price, the experience at Momofuku Ko is a quantum leap below every four-star restaurant in town. Indeed, it’s probably a mid-tier three-star place.

Yes, it is very good for $85 prix fixe. But at that level, Ko is squarely in the price range of many three-star restaurants. For instance, the prix fixe at Eleven Madison Park is $82; Granted, it’s not a long tasting menu (which would be $145), but rather three courses with some amuses-bouches and petits-fours thrown in. But those three courses have considerably more culinary craftsmanship than most of the menu at Momofuku Ko, and they’re served in a room 10 times as lovely, by a staff 10 times as polished.

To be sure, a four-star rating for Momofuku Ko would give Bruni the chance to put the heel of his boot on the Times star system in a way that none of his previous ratings have done. It’s an opportunity that must have occurred to him. But we think he cares enough about his craft to recognize a real four-star restaurant from a mere imitator.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Momofuku Ko.

Update: Just anticipating some potential comments here: The 175-week drought is the gap between new entrants to the four-star level. Bruni has had other four-star reviews, but they were re-affirmations of ratings given by his predecessors.


Momofuku Ko


Note: This is a review of Momofuku Ko in its former location on First Avenue. In November 2014, the restaurant moved to 8 Extra Place.


The hassle of obtaining a reservation of Momofuku Ko has quickly become the stuff of legend—and that’s for a restaurant barely over a month old. After finally wrestling this bear to the ground, I can finally answer the question: Is it worth it?

Not that my opinion matters, because MoKo has MoJo (hat tip: The Pink Pig). If, by any chance, there were a negative review—and I haven’t seen one yet—it would hardly make a difference for the restaurant that seemingly can do no wrong. In this week’s New York, MoKo earns four stars from Adam Platt (conferred by the frothing critic after just one visit). At the Paper of Record, Frank Bruni is taking his time, but the smart money is betting on another four-star review.

Irrelevant though our verdict may be, the short answer is: Yes, MoKo really does deserve all of that attention. And yes, if you care at all about food, it really is worth your while to jump through hoops to become one of the approximately 32 guests that are served six nights a week. (They are closed Tuesdays.)

The ten-course tasting menu is not the best we’ve had in New York, but it is pretty darned close. And you get it for $85, which is at least $50 per person less than what you’d pay elsewhere for comparable quality. What you lose is the comfort and coddling that the better restaurants offer. You’re seated at a bar on wooden stools; those with back problems needn’t apply.

The chefs also serve the food, assisted by two servers who have to navigate a narrow space and sometimes can’t quite keep up with the demand. Peter Serpico, the restaurant’s executive chef, served most of our courses. He seemed to have very little enthusiasm for that part of the job. Two other chef–servers seemed more cheerful, but our sense was that the real joy for them is in the cooking.

Chef–owner (and media darling) David Chang was in the house. For about the first half of the meal, he was behind the counter doing mostly prep work, along with three other chefs. A photographer from Bloomberg news was snapping photos; everyone lightened up considerably after he left. Chang later disappeared, though we saw him again briefly before we left. There appeared to be two other employees behind the scenes, washing dishes and doing other prep work.

The two non-chef servers had an awful lot to do: greeting and seating guests; checking and returning coats; taking and delivering beverage orders; clearing plates (but not always); and setting silverware (but not always). Though the restaurant’s 14 seats were never completely full at any time during our meal, that is still a lot for two servers to do. Silverware didn’t always arrive when it should, and we detected some uncertainty among the staff about who was responsible for clearing plates.

Want a cappuccino after dinner? Sorry…they only have espresso.

The entrance, unlabeled and easily missed
I am not suggesting that service is bad here, but merely pointing out the gulf between Momofuku Ko and traditional three- and four-star restaurants. The service routine will improve with time, but MoKo will probably never offer the kind of pampering and coddling that many diners expect at this price level. It’s not an “occasion place,” but if future menus are as good as the one we had, I would happily go again. And again.

The beverage program is continuing to improve. There’s now a respectable wine list, with bottles as low as $32, as well as those in the hundreds. There is now a premium wine pairing at $85, in addition to the standard wine pairing at $50 that was available before. We ordered the premium wine pairing and were impressed with the choices, which included two sakes, a sparkling rosé, one red, and a number of whites.

Wine pairings are always a crap-shoot. At their best, you get provocative wines from producers off the beaten path—great wines that compelment the food, and that you never would have chosen yourself. At their worst, you get dull, generic wines that make you wish you’d just ordered a “blow-the-doors off” full bottle. The pairings at Ko are firmly in the first category. At $85, the wines are mostly young; you’re not getting anything like the 1962 Madeira we were served at Per Se. But it is still one of the more impressive wine pairings we’ve had, and well worth it.

In the restaurant’s early days, the menu is pretty much the same for everybody, but there are alternatives for most courses, to offer variety for second-time guests or to accommodate diners with dietary restrictions. We reported only one such restriction (my girlfriend doesn’t eat scallops) but we were served alternatives for four out of ten courses. By switching plates, we were able to sample fourteen dishes between us.

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English muffin with pork fat and pork rinds (left); Fluke sashimi with spicy buttermilk & poppy seeds (right)

The first item—technically the amuse-bouche—was a miniature English muffin slathered in whipped pork fat, with dried pork rinds on the side. Some reviewers have raved about the muffins, but we weren’t quite as impressed. Chang has proved you can pair pork with anything; so what? The wine pairing was a sparkling rosé.

We adored the first savory course: Long Island fluke sashimi with spicy buttermilk and toasted poppy seeds. The cool, bracing freshness of the fluke worked perfectly with the spicy heat of the buttermilk. The wine pairing was a nice Chablis—and that comes from folks who aren’t Chablis fans.

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Berkshire pork belly & oyster in kimchi broth (left); Louisiana crawfish in a Georgia pea soup (right)

The next course was split. I had the Berkshire pork belly with a Long Island oyster, Napa cabbage and kimchi consommé. You’ll never go wrong when David Chang serves pork (we saw him shucking the oysters), but I must confess I don’t quite get the fuss over the kimchi that many other critics have raved about.

My girlfriend had the Louisiana crawfish in a Georgia pea soup with crumpet mushrooms. The flavor contrast here might have even been better than the pork/oyster combo, but the crawfish should have been a little warmer. And it was probably just a goof, but we had to ask for spoons.

The wine pairing here was a sake.

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Hen egg, caviar, potato chips (left); White asparagus, caviar, asparagus purée (right)

Another split course came next, again with white wine.

There’ve been snickers about “hen eggs” (anyone ever hear of a rooster egg?), but they can call it anything they want when it’s this good. A lightly smoked egg was supported here with hackleback caviar and candied lemon zest. At the edge of the plate, a pile of fingerling potato chips added very little to the effect.

We saw the chef lavishing plenty of attention over lovely white asparagus stalks, which were grilled, sauced with an asparagus purée and garnished with caviar. This bland and overly salty creation couldn’t compete with the intensity of the hen egg.

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Scallop (left); Soft-shell crab (right)

While we were eating our caviar, we watched as the chef decapitated live soft-shell crabs and put them the frying pan, their legs still squirming. We did our best to ignore the crabs’ fate, but it wasn’t a sight for the squeamish.

This was another split course, with the crab served to me and the scallop to my girlfriend, even though she is the one who doesn’t eat scallops. The scallop was served with radishes, the crab with ramps, and both dishes had a other ingredients we couldn’t write down fast enough. The wine pairing was a Chardonnay.

The crab didn’t have much flavor, and it was also difficult to eat. Even though my girlfriend doesn’t eat scallops, I persuaded to try a bite, and she agreed it was the more enjoyable of the two.

Shaved foie gras, lychee, pine nut brittle, riesling gelée

If MoKo has fired a “shot heard ’round the world,” it’s surely the dish that came next: shaved foie gras over lychee, pine nut brittle and a riesling gelée. The ingredients join in your mouth, leaving a startling sensation of the foie gras melting and melding with its unlikely companions.

The wine pairing was a sweet sake.

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Deep-fried short rib as it came out of the fryer (left); and as served on the plate (right)

The deep-fried short ribs are almost as big a hit. They’re slowly braised overnight, then quickly finished in the deep fryer. The chef trims away the ends, a waste that we considered practically criminal, given how tender they are. I would happily eat a meal comprising nothing but the ends Momofuku is throwing away.

There’s also daikon radish and pickled mustard seed on the plate, but the short rib is the star. The wine pairing was our only red wine of the evening, a Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Miso soup with grilled rice (left); Lychee sorbet (right)

The last few courses weren’t quite as interesting. The last savory course was a miso soup with grilled rice and pickled vegetables. I believe the rice is slathered in more pork fat. The palate cleanser was a lychee sorbet over sesame crumble.

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Cereal milk panna cotta (left); Deep-fried apple pie (right)

Everyone at MoKo seems to get one of two desserts, so we were pleased to be able to try both. The more interesting of the two is a cereal milk panna cotta with brittle chocolate and an avocado purée. The alternative was a deep-fried apple pie, which was just fine, but not all that far removed from the McDonalds version. On the whole, the desserts didn’t have the same level of invention as the savory courses.

There were no outright duds among the fourteen items we tasted. Setting aside the hype, there were several extraordinary dishes, a number of others that were merely good, and four or five that really ought to be better. A couple of dishes (the foie gras, the short ribs) have already gone platinum, and may be on the hit parade for a long time to come. The lesser stars will, I am sure, give way to new flights of Momofuku fancy.

Not since Per Se has a new restaurant been the subject of such over-heated attention. But sometimes places are hyped because they’re really worth it, and this is one of them. If you don’t mind hard, backless benches and occasionally inartful service, Momofuku Ko is just about everything it’s cracked up to be.

Momofuku Ko (163 First Avenue between 10th & 11th Streets, East Village)

Food: ★★★
Service: ★★
Ambiance: ★★
Overall: ★★★


Momofuku Ko: Shame on Adam Platt

We’ve roasted and skewered the Times’ Frank Bruni more than the law allows, but he’s the model of rectitude compared to New York’s Adam Platt, who bestowed four stars on Momofuku Ko after just one visit.

Platt concedes that critics are “normally” supposed to pay multiple visits before passing judgment. Why break that rule? Apparently because it’s so hard to get in:

The murmuring, deferential patrons who manage to find a spot at the modest, twelve-seat bar are chosen at random, by a computerized system that seems designed not to entice people to dine at Momofuku Ko but to drive them away. These seats can be booked only a week in advance, and only by logging on to the Momofuku Website. The computer begins taking reservations each morning at ten o’clock, and thanks to the legions of devoted and increasingly frantic Chang groupies (the 30-year-old chef was just nominated for his third James Beard award, and has been the subject of many glowing profiles in many glossy magazines), they’re gone not in minutes but in seconds. Under these trying conditions, getting in the door once, let alone the three times most critics prefer, could take months or even years.

Sorry, but that makes no sense. I have Ko reservations this Friday, and I didn’t “have the services of many diligent assistants willing to peck at their keyboards like gaming zombies for an entire week.” I did it myself.

As the food boards attest, there are already people who’ve dined at Ko more than once, and the place is still under a month old. It’s difficult, but not that difficult, to get in. It certainly wouldn’t take “even years” to visit three times. As Platt paid his lone visit in the restaurant’s third or fourth week of existence, you’d have to conclude he didn’t try very hard.

If it takes “months,” so what? Four years ago, it took Frank Bruni more three months to review Per Se, which in the day was just as hard to get into (I would argue that it was harder) as Momofuku Ko. Bruni was obligated to take his time, particularly before giving out four stars, and he took that obligation seriously.

Platt’s breathless over-eagerness is shown by the timing of his review, posted late yesterday (Tuesday). His reviews are normally posted in line with New York’s publication cycle, with new issues hitting newsstands every Monday. It seems he was more concerned with making Eater.com’s Week in Reviews than with writing responsible criticism.

You may be thinking, “Wait a sec! What about this very blog, New York Journal, which routinely reviews restaurants after only one visit?”

Well, I respectfully submit that there are some significant differences between Adam Platt and me. I’m not paid to do this, I spend my own money, I don’t do it full-time, and I don’t have the benefit of “diligent assistants” to make reservations for me.

I also haven’t changed my standards for one restaurant.


Ko Envy: He Scores!


This is my final post about the reservations adventure at Momofuku Ko, because I finally have one. It’s next Friday at exactly 6:05 p.m.

Frank Bruni had several funny posts this week explaining how it works. The puns and sexual imagery were out in full force:

Assuming the Ko computer system is working properly — and you really have to take it on faith, and your faith wobbles as you try and try without success to reserve — you are in competition for a reservation if, at 10 a.m. precisely, or better yet at 9:58 a.m., you begin submitting a reservation request and then submitting it again, essentially refreshing and re-refreshing your browser as you try to thread the electronic needle and have the Ko system register your electronic request at the precise moment it’s freeing up a new night’s worth of reservations, before all the other electronic requests, like sperms swimming furiously to be first to the egg, beat yours to the punch.

ko_reservation2.jpgThe screenshot above is what you see when you finally get through. You’ve got exactly one minute to click “Accept.” Then, there’s another screen where you enter any dietary restrictions. Finally, you get the screen on the right, and a confirming e-mail arrives moments later.

Poor Frank Bruni still hasn’t gotten through, even though he has a friend “B.” and “a small posse of other gourmands who’d love to have me buy them a meal at Ko” working on his behalf. I had to do it all by myself.

Just yesterday I learned one of the secrets: there are fewer people trying on weekends. Sure enough, that worked. (Today is Saturday.)

Another trick is to synchronize your watch to the Ko computer. Sometimes, you get a message that there are no reservations available, and you see the exact time (to the second) on your screen. If you try that at 9:59:26, then you should wait exactly 34 seconds before trying again, so that your next attempt will be at exactly 10:00:00.

When you get the screen with a green check mark (signifying an available reservation slot), you can’t linger over it. There are a thousand other sets of eyes looking at that check mark. You’d better know what times are acceptable to you, so that you can click instantly. He who hesitates is lost.

Is it worth all this trouble? Obviously I can’t answer that definitively until Friday.

But it’s not really much trouble at all. For a reservation at Per Se, I had to call at 10:00 a. m. exactly two months ahead. I had to hit re-dial about a dozen times, then wait on hold for about twenty minutes before getting through to a human being. The ritual at Babbo is even worse, and that restaurant is at least a decade old.

At Momofuku Ko, the process takes only two minutes. By 10:01, either you have a reservation or you don’t. It’s certainly not the restaurant’s fault that so many people want to eat there.

I realize that some people are frustrated by a new technology. But some people were probably frustrated when the telephone was invented, too. 


Momofuku Ko: I Got to Third Base

momofukuko_reservation.jpgToday, I got to the screen that actually showed a few green check marks for next Thursday. That’s farther than I got yesterday.

But every time I clicked on a green check mark, I got back a screen with more red X’s, and less green. That meant someone else was clicking faster than I was.

Within moments, everything was all gone. The day sold out in 43 seconds. I hadn’t scored. I’m going to be traveling, so I won’t be able to try again for a couple of weeks.

According to Team Ko: “On the other hand we did have 5 cancellations yesterday and a couple of those actually lasted for over ten minutes before getting snapped up.”


Ko Interruptus


Today was the first day I actually tried to make a reservation at Momofuku Ko. That would have been for next Wednesday: the site opens every day at 10:00 a.m. for six days in advance.

Two days ago, the site debuted, and its instability quickly became a joke. Yesterday offered a respite: since the restaurant is closed Tuesdays, there would be no 10:00 a.m. rush. The Ko team took the extra day to add some spit ’n’ polish to their still-raw website.

So today at 10:00 a.m., I was poised and ready to go. The site stayed up this time, but with hundreds logged in simultaneously, snagging a reservation would be the luck of the draw…  Alas, no. Next Wednesday sold out in 92 seconds!

Until tomorrow…


More Ko Envy

momofukuko_reservation.jpgMomofuku Ko’s online reservation site debuted at 10:00 a.m. yesterday. It crashed at 10:02.

All day long at Eater.com, breathless editors chronicled the site’s ups and downs—mostly downs (here, here, here, here). It took about five hours for the first week to sell out, though it would have taken only minutes if the site had been working.

At Ko HQ, engineers said they’d been hit by a denial-of-service attack. To us, it looked like they simply weren’t ready. It turns out that building your own website isn’t as easy as it looks.

The money quote was in the Eater.com comments: “Oh wait I get it now. In keeping with the whole concept of the restaurant, they’ve put the reservation system on a server that only can handle 12 people at a time!”

It didn’t take long for scalpers to start hawking reservations on eBay and Craig’s List. Team Ko added a word of warning to their home page, phrased in their trademarked sentence fragments:

please note you must show id that matches
your reservation info when you come in to eat
(wish we didn’t have to do that)

As we expected, David Chang’s publicity machine is in high gear today, the first day the restaurant is open to paying customers. A photo of Chang tops this week’s Dining section in the Times, and Ko leads off Julia Moskin’s feature article, “Your Water Tonight… Will Be the Chef.” Naturally, Momofuku Ko is also the top item in Florence Fabricant’s “Off the Menu.”

Our cynicism notwithstanding, we do intend to dine at Momofuku Ko very soon…if the website cooperates.

Momofuku Ko (163 First Avenue at E. 10th Street, East Village)


Ko Envy

[Kalina via Eater]

David Chang’s latest restaurant, Momofuku Ko, is all set to open on March 12. Always attuned to his own self-promotion, Chang chose a Wednesday, so that Florence Fabricant can announce the opening in that day’s Times food section.

Dinner service for Friends & Family began this week, and already the blogosphere is a-ga-ga. Ruth Reichl files a review that sounds like it would be four stars if she still wrote for the Times. She is ready to fellate Chang. Ed Levine keeps his pants on, but loves the place too.

At least two lucky eGullet members have photos posted (here, here). Pro photographer Kathryn Yu has a beautiful set up on flickr (here). The photos even show David Chang himself in the kitchen; and there, we thought he hadn’t actually cooked anything in years.

eGullet founder Steven A. Shaw isn’t one of the fortunate few to have dined there yet, but he’s already a skeptic:

Those dishes all looked entirely within the capabilities of the Ssäm Bar kitchen (indeed, as noted above, variants of several of these dishes have been served at Ssäm Bar over the past few months). Maybe the portions in the Ko photos are smaller and the plate compositions slightly more precise, but that’s about it….

I’ve been as enthusiastic about the food at Ssäm Bar and Noodle Bar as just about anybody, and have made the case that Ssäm Bar is the best restaurant in New York right now, so I’m not saying that it would be a bad thing for the Chang team not to be able to cook food any better than what they’re serving at Ssäm Bar. It’s already fantastic. But it won’t get better by virtue of being put on smaller plates with dollops of caviar.

Momofuku Ko hasn’t got a phone. An online reservation system is the only way to get in (preview here), with bookings accepted up to a week in advance. As there are just 14 seats, you can expect this to be New York’s toughest table—at least for a while. I’m picturing thousands of foodies in their pajamas with fingers poised on the refresh button at 12:01 a.m. every day.

Such is the hype that even the URL is a subject of speculation. Eater, who’s in-the-know, posts that “The system will go live sometime between now and Saturday.”

Momofuku Ko (163 First Avenue at E. 10th Street, East Village)