At David Chang's Ma Peche, Good Food Battles a Terrible Room
Pretty much everyone would agree that, over the past six years, David Chang has defined a new strain of downtown dining. The reason for this—the Chang experience, let's say—is a synergy of elements that's unique to the chef's restaurants. The open kitchens. The utilitarian stools. The crowds. The perfunctory but able service. The zingy, spicy, fatty, sometimes astonishing, almost always delicious food.
But now take a Chang venture and drain it of all liveliness. Turn it into a hotel restaurant. Jack up the prices, and hide away the kitchen. Muffle everything under walls cloaked in drapery the color of old paper so that the whole room feels like a tent, murky and close. That's Chang's Má Pêche, tucked in the basement of the Chambers Hotel in Midtown. No wonder it's often only half-full at dinner. And although executive chef Tien Ho is doing some remarkable cooking, I've never felt so claustrophobic in a place with such a high ceiling. Van Halen echoes above, 50-year-old ladies talk about yoga and trips to ancient Delphi, and, before you know it, you've dropped $150 and been hustled out the door in less than an hour. If the Momofukus energize, Má Pêche leaves you in a bit of a daze.
Despite legions of grumps waiting for an excuse to pull Chang down from his pedestal, he hasn't given up any ground before now. Whether you think the guy is overexposed or not, his food is fantastic and that's all that matters. And if Má Pêche were a Midtown hotel restaurant from an unknown chef, it would be notable for its spunk—frisée and tripe! Vietnamese squid salad! Caramel-glazed ribs! But it's a Chang restaurant, so you're grading on a curve, waiting for a moment as transporting as when you first tasted Momofuku Ssäm Bar's fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce and Rice Krispies. Ho used to head the kitchen at that restaurant, and his food—though presented here in a near sensory vacuum—is still very good, on balance. But when bad execution did occur, I found myself in a much less forgiving mood.
Má Pêche's menu divides into raw bar, small plate, seasonal, fish, and meat sections. While Chang's restaurants downtown are a swirl of New American, Korean, Japanese, and miscellaneous influences, Má Pêche is rooted in Vietnamese and French cuisines. (Ho is classically trained and was born in Vietnam.) Depending on which items you order, you'll want about two dishes per person—larger meat and fish preparations average in the mid-$20s, smaller plates hover around $15. Umami-rich Maggi seasoning and Sriracha sit on every table.
The raw bar offers some gigantic platters for traveling businessmen with expense accounts, but also some pretty wonderful affordable options. A salad of silken squid with peanuts, Thai basil, scallions, chilies, and plenty of fish sauce and lime has the refreshing zip of the best Vietnamese salads. Chilled king crab costs $13 for a quarter pound, enough for two people to share as a small appetizer, and comes with tart calamansi mayo for dipping.
Ho's cooking plays between those sprightly, lighter dishes and heavier meditations on animal fat. The best small plate looks like a big bowl of frisée at first, but within the spiky greens lie in wait a poached egg, pork jowl lardons, and tomatoey tripe stew. It's a take on the classic frisée aux lardons salad, with the funky addition of the tender braised stomach lining. Break the egg and mix it all up into a fantastically smoky-sticky mess. We also liked a dish of wild Burgundy snails—small, blackened knobs—with a plump pork sausage in a garlicky gravy with enough vinegar to even things out.
Swinging back over to summery fare, a cold toss of asparagus and lump crab meat gets a lift from a zesty sauce gribiche made with sieved egg yolks and garnished with tiny fingerling potato chips. It's a fine salad, but it costs $18 and you'll probably forget it the second the plate is gone. Fried cauliflower with curry leaves, mint, and fish sauce practically explodes with flavor, but the florets go soggy in their dressing—the dish has none of the textural appeal of the similar fried brussels sprouts at Ssäm Bar.
As for the larger meat and fish offerings, there's one true clunker in the mix, and that's the rice noodles with pork ragu. It should be great—what's not to like?—but the noodles are shaped like penne, the wrong choice for this sauce, which ends up pooling in the bottom of the bowl instead of clinging to the pasta. On top of that, the noodles are oddly tough and over-toasted, and the ground pork needed a shake of Maggi to taste like much. Anyone with any experience cooking could look at that dish and tell you what went wrong, and it wouldn't be hard to fix.
Other large plates are more success-ful: The brick-red beer-and-crab-paste broth in a pot of mussels is so funky-spicy-sweet I could drink it straight. Beefy short ribs in an aromatic, star-anise-scented broth could be the pho this city has been waiting for. But that bowl includes rice spaetzle, which, though intriguing, doesn't have the satisfying chew of the traditional wheat versions.
And that revelatory Chang moment you've come to expect? The closest I came at Má Pêche was when biting into fat rice fries, which come on the side of the steak frites but can be ordered à la carte if you ask nicely. Crisp and burnished, the crust gives way to a sticky mass of mashed rice, nutty and addictive. It's the sort of invention you'd find only at a Chang restaurant—unlike the room, which you'd find only in Midtown.
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