Category: Eats

I’ll have what she’s having

Friday, April 4th, 2008 | All Things, Eats

After wiling away happy hour (and then some) at Stone Creek‘s anniversary party — thanks to owner and Cowboys sympathizer Jon Pirozzi for the invitation — we’d had our fill of bar food and semi-stilted small talk with suited strangers.

The area around 28th and Lex is known for ethnic eats: Indian and Pakistani mostly, plus the occasional Afghani restaurant. I was in the mood for something different, though… or rather: something not so different. And for straightforward comfort food, one of my favorite spots in this neighborhood is the eminently homey Penelope on the corner of 30th Street and Lexington Avenue.

The low-key restaurant, with its shabby country-chic decor (striped awning, mismatched tables, wooden plank flooring, turquoise wainscoting), first opened in 2003. The menu features homespun favorites, freshly prepared — exactly what one would expect from a place named for owner Jennifer Potenza’s turtle. Popular for brunch and home-baked goods, which are displayed on pedestals under glass. As noted by one recent Yelp reviewer, Penelope seems to draw an overwhelmingly female crowd (“Guys… THE ENTIRE CLIENTELE WAS FEMALE. I’m not joking. Really not joking“) … a fact my two male dining companions this evening can happily confirm.

I’m often drawn to Penelope’s warm artichoke and spinach dip, but in slight acknowledgment of our surroundings, l ordered the “Curried Chicken Salad”: grilled chicken, golden raisins, green apple, and peppers in a sweet and spicy curry dressing, garnished with toasted coconut. (I make a similar version at home, using Fairway’s roasted chicken and chopped mangoes.)

I’ve enjoyed just about all the salads here, actually… particularly the “When Veggie Met Sally” (chopped greens with red onion, grilled veggie burger, and green apple tossed with goat cheese in a roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette) — a tribute to that quintessential New York film, which MC would refer to consistently and mistakenly as “When Harry Met Salad.” Which actually would have made for a better play on the movie title, don’t you think?

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Ko, continued

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008 | All Things, Arts, Eats, Travel

So now that I’ve digested a bit – mentally and physically – I can fill in some more details about SC’s and my dinner at Momofuku Ko.

The restaurant’s overloaded, but entirely democratic online reservations system has been the subject of breathless coverage since it went live on March 11. No special treatment: earlier today, The Times restaurant reviewer bemoaned his inability to nab one of the 32 reservations that go up every morning at 10AM. (New York magazine’s Adam Platt and his “many diligent assistants” fared better and rated his meal a rare and rapturous four stars.) Earlier in the week, I was in the throes of my own Ko-fueled frustration, but unlike Frank Bruni I got lucky, scooping up a just released cancellation for a prime Wednesday evening dinner slot.

Behind the metal latticework-wrapped façade is a minimalist, utilitarian interior; the space was formerly home to Momofuku Noodle Bar, which moved to larger digs up the block in November. SC had already checked in by the time I arrived at 7:30PM. Despite prior warnings made to discourage a secondary market for reservations, the hostess did not check for photo ID.

The set-up remains essentially unchanged from the restaurant’s noodle bar days. While backless wooden seats may be fine for Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar, they are perhaps less suitable for Ko’s 2+ hour tasting menu format. Fortunately, most of the patrons (like the staff) seemed to be in their 20s and 30s — a demographic used to wiling away hours on hard, backless barstools.

To keep track of all of the courses — 8 actual courses, plus a handful of amuse-bouche and a pre-dessert of sorbets — there were tickets printed up with the list of the night’s dishes: Amuse, Fluke, Consommé, Egg, Scallop, Foie, Rib, Miso, Pre, and Apple. Also on the tickets were notes about drinks and menu substitutions or dietary restrictions, e.g., Ebi for Fluke, Pea for Consommé, “No Dairy.”

SC and I were seated in positions 7 & 8 tonight, which put us near the front corner of the counter, from which we were able to catch every slice and dice, sprinkle of sea salt, dunk in the deep fryer and more than a few snarky comments from Chang, chef de cuisine Peter Serpico (in foreground) and Co.

Momofuku Ko chefs

As has been noted, there are no servers at Momofuku Ko: the chefs present all the dishes over the counter, and therefore, are entitled to the tips. The two or three non-chef staffers — all women — were tasked with hostess duties (door management, coat checking and seating), dish clearing and drink serving. There were no printed menus — Chang told us that the dishes “have changed a little every day” since the restaurant opened — so we were reliant on the chefs to describe the plates for us. Most of these interactions felt a bit perfunctory… understandably, as the chefs seemed to have a lot of other duties to concern themselves over. For the most part we resisted the urge to ask follow-up questions, and as a result, several menu details were omitted, or just missed… though sometimes later filled in as we overheard the same dish explained for our fellow diners. (Thanks, by the way, to SC for her quick note-taking on the BlackBerry.)

Amuse-bouche of homemade mini-English muffins, topped with whipped pork fat (oh!) and chives:

Momofuku Ko English Muffins

Despite his somewhat prickly reputation and known tendency towards outburst, Chang seemed almost jovial this evening, and even found time to check in with me and SC a few times during the meal. During the service, there were stretches during which he would disappear, perhaps to check in on his other nearby restaurants. At one point he returned to show off a newly stuffed baseball bat-sized casing crammed with beef; another time, he came into the kitchen bearing a handful of scallops on the half-shell, which he tossed onto the grill as snacks for himself and the other chefs.

We learned that on his days off, Chang likes to sleep late and order in Chinese food – who doesn’t? – and that he has gotten “pretty sick” of the current Ko menu and its iterations… though when it would be changing, he couldn’t say.

Momofuku Ko’s tasting menu is a more refined implementation of Chang’s culinary aesthetic, which until now, has been best glimpsed on Ssäm’s late night menu. The dishes themselves have been analyzed endlessly — and by those better equipped with the vocabulary than I — so I’ll just note that the standouts for me included the “Foie” (pictured below: a white porcelain boat of lychee, candy-like pinenut brittle and Riesling gelée, buried under a delicate mound of snowy foie gras shavings, which melded into an unexpected, but delicious combination of tastes and textures), the “Rib” (a rare, juicy chunk of beef, braised for 48 hours before being deep-fried to produce a spectacular crust) and the “Scallop” (one of Chang’s favorites, too: perfectly seared, and juicy within.)

Momofuku Ko Foie Gras

The most ordinary dish, though still good, was probably our final savory dish of the night, the “Miso“: a bowl of soup accompanied by a grilled rice cake slathered in… butter, maybe? and served over stewed cabbage. Coming off the ultra-rich Scallop-Foie-Rib stretch, it served as a palate cleanser. Speaking of which, the pre-dessert cantaloupe sorbet over candied pineapple was packed with more cantaloupe flavor than any fruit I’ve ever eaten. To finish: the fried apple pie — oh, fried pie! — with a quenelle of sour cream ice cream and a smear of salty toasted miso hit all the right crispy, creamy, savory and sweet notes. (SC and I noted that a couple of other diners had received what appeared to be a panna cotta dessert, served with chocolate and avocado mousse.) By that point in the evening, though, we were experiencing serious feasting fatigue, and couldn’t manage more than a few bites before we reluctantly allowed the hostess take our plates.

Momofuku Ko Apple Pie

Previous diners’ reports have claimed problems with the pacing of the dishes — with the chefs rushing them through their meals — but we found the opposite true. And although we were more than happy to linger and take in the spectacle of food preparation, there were several gaps in the service during which our stomachs’ fullness receptors had ample time to kick in and inform us that we had eaten entirely too much food.

For us, the 7:30PM start time was ideal: midway through the dinner service, as the chefs were easing into their evening’s routine. But at two hours and forty minutes, our meal did run long, and by the time we rose, staggering, from our seats, the couple with the 9:30PM final reservation had long been waiting. This morning, in navigating through the reservations system (out of curiosity only — really!) I noticed that instead of 15 minute intervals, the seating times have been adjusted to allow for two-hour seatings in staggered groupings at 6PM, 8PM and 10PM, with a gap between 6:30PM and 8PM.

Good to know, if ever I get lucky again.

Momofuku Ko photo set on flickr.

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Ko yes!

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008 | All Things, Eats

Just returned from the tasting menu at Momofuku Ko — easily the most transcendent meal I’ve had in recent memory. After a couple weeks of obsessively monitoring the reservations website, where new spaces at the 12-seat counter go up 7 days in advance promptly at 10AM, I managed to snare a reservation for 2 at 7:30PM tonight. (Not even Bruni is exempt from the scrambling madness.) And just as critics Ruth Reichl and Ed Levine, bloggers like Kathryn Yu and Tina Wong (a.k.a. The Wandering Eater) and several other members of the food community have said it would be, it was divine.

Fuller description of our 2½ hour+ experience will follow — all my focus now is on processing this glorious meal… and catching up on tonight’s Top Chef — but in the meantime, here are a few photos of the twelve courses we sampled at David Chang’s newest venture.

Deep fried sweet shrimp heads:

Momofuku Ko Ebi

Fluke sashimi with spicy buttermilk sauce, poppy seeds and chives:

Momofuku Ko Fluke Sashimi

Chef Chang, who wandered in and out of the open kitchen throughout the service:

David Chang

Smoked coddled “hen egg” with Hackleback caviar, onion soubise, sweet potato vinegar, fingerling potato chips and fines herbes:

Momofuku Ko Caviar Egg

Seared scallops, with almonds, pickled radish and bacon puree:

Momofuku Ko Scallops

Braised and deep-fried short rib, grilled scallion, pickled carrots, stewed daikon and mustard seeds:

Momofuku Ko Short Rib

Check out my full Momofuku Ko photo set on flickr.

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