Monday, April 20, 2009

Momofuku Noodle Bar

5 out of 5

** Didn't have time to write a complete article on this, so I just consolidated some articles (NY Times, NY Metro Dining, etc) that wrote good articles on it already, which also reflect how I felt when eating here.

The biggest star to emerge from the casual-dining scene is David Chang, named 2007 chef of the year by GQ and Bon Appetit for running Manhattan's Momofuku empire, consisting of three tiny restaurants right near one another that often play Led Zeppelin loud and have posters of John McEnroe on the wall. "So much in the late '90s and this decade was about service and serving mediocre food. I would rather be in an uncomfortable environment serving delicious food," says Chang. "I remember working at a restaurant, and they told us these statistics that the thing diners care about most was service and second was d├ęcor and third was food. And that made me mad. I said, 'Screw it.' That was the motto. Screw everything else — just worry about the food."

Chang compares the trend toward smaller, casual-dining restaurants to what happened to retail clothing 10 years ago, when department stores got destroyed by boutiques. "You're going to find funkier little restaurants that aren't for everyone, just like clothing stores aren't for everyone," he says. "Look at the jeans stores. There are 25 different stores that just sell jeans." His menu reflects his background as a Korean-American chef who came up through the seasonally obsessed kitchen at Craft doing his take on Japanese noodles plus, it seems, whatever else he feels like cooking. Thus, the “Momo" ($16) or Momofuku ramen was born—a large bowl of ramen noodles laden with impossibly tender Berkshire pork belly and shredded pork shoulder, showered with market vegetables, topped with a lightly poached egg. Its broth was very rich and dark, as it was simmered with roasted pork bones, shiitake mushrooms and bacon. By a mile, this is the specialty of the house. Cecile, my NY banker friend, was quick to order this for us, telling me how much she loved this restaurant that she would order this when she needed some comfort food.
“Momo" ($16)

But before we gobbled the ramen, we started it with Hanger Steak ($22), which has nugget potatoes, kimchi and butter. It was perfectly cooked, very moist and pink on the inside, the marinade of kimchi giving it a unique flavor. Unfortunately, the serving was also small for sharing alone, so we also grabbed another appetizer before our ramens.
Hanger Steak ($22)

Since Cecile chose, it had to be the equally famous pork buns ($9): A sock-puppet of steamed bread filled with thick-sliced pork belly dressed with hoisin sauce, cucumber, and scallion. Hot sauce optional. It is phenomenal.
Pork Buns ($9)

Anything that gives more people easier access to David Chang’s steamed pork buns is a humanitarian advance. So if that were all that had been accomplished by Momofuku Noodle Bar’s recent move into a larger space — there are 65 seats, up from 27 — it would be enough. But that isn’t all. With squat stools at communal tables in addition to tall stools at counters, the new Noodle offers a little more comfort. It’s set up like its more lauded sister, Momofuku Ssam Bar, though it has a paler hue and a perkier spirit, playing the blonde to Ssam’s brunette.

The menu has expanded, especially in a section titled “Cold,” where you find dishes including hamachi with blood orange ($16) and smoked duck with cinnamon ($14). Kitchen equipment has also been upgraded.

And there’s now soft-serve ice cream ($4), from a machine at center stage. It stands as an emblem of the polymorphous, mischievous Momofuku spirit, whereby East, West, high and low matter less than what strikes Mr. Chang’s fancy, like a cold braid of pistachio and cannoli flavors in a cone.

If the florid praise that has flowed Mr. Chang’s way is starting to grate on you, here’s your palliative: there are numerous miscues at the expanded Noodle, which competes with Ssam and now Momofuku Ko for Mr. Chang’s attention. Kevin Pemoulie, a partner in Noodle, runs the kitchen day to day.

The grilled octopus ($13) was rubbery. Duck confit rested on eggs that were billed as “soft scrambled” ($24) but that registered as an unappealing porridge. Although the noodles in the ramen dishes ($9 to $15) had a terrific mouth feel, the broth on occasion lacked spirit. And none of this struck me as any bargain in the context of a first-come-first-served operation that remains cramped.

But service was expert, and so, in the end, was most of the kitchen’s output: hefty, succulent prawns ($18) on buttery grits enriched by a poached egg and pork stock; a new dish of deep-fried chicken ($21 for a half, $40 for a whole) that’s not encased in batter, so it has an un-oily crunch; those famously plump smoked chicken wings with garlic and pickled chili ($11).
Steamed chicken buns ($9 for two) were better than ever, the pulled dark meat crisped on a new high-heat griddle. Will they challenge the hegemony of the pork buns? I think not. But that’s only because there’s nary a sandwich in this city that could.

menu. click to magnify.

171 First Avenue
in between 10th and 11th street
New York, NYC

noodle bar hours of operation

sun - thurs:
12pm - 11pm

fri - sat:
12pm - 12am


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