Food

Two-Point-Whoa: An Early Taste of the New Momofuku Ko

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In late October, David Chang closed the doors to Momofuku Ko (8 Extra Place, 212-203-8095), his 12-seat tasting counter at 163 First Avenue. The enterprising chef had a decade-long history with the space, which served as the nucleus for all things Momofuku, beginning in 2004 with the original Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Watching Chang move and evolve his properties throughout New York and beyond has been fascinating. Ko drove people into a frenzy, in part because of its egalitarian online reservation system. Its impenetrability ebbed and flowed over the years, as the city’s whirlwind popularity mill necessitates, but it has always remained a prism into the Momofuku ethos, an honest experience behind a controversial veneer. Six years and numerous accolades later, Momofuku Ko reopened in new digs at 8 Extra Place. Make no mistake, Chang, executive chef Sean Gray, and their punked-out and funked-out kitchen crew are gunning for the top.

Although this next tidbit will sound like a sad foodie humblebrag, I was fortunate enough to sit my then-slender posterior on one of Ko 1.0’s uncomfortable backless wooden stools after a friend miraculously snagged a 6:45 reservation on opening night. The new Ko has nearly quadruple the seats as the original (now upholstered in forgiving leather with lower-back support) with a gorgeous, rectangular open kitchen to match. It’s a stage, to be sure, but whereas old Ko felt like a private recital, the vibe now is closer to that of Aziz Ansari (an admirer of Chang’s) playing Madison Square Garden.

To that effect, Gray choreographs an ensemble cast — literally. Depending on your vantage point around the counter, you’ll watch specific dishes put together from start to finish. And throughout the multi-course meal (I counted a total of 20 separate presentations), each member of the team gets a solo. I found myself parked in front of a baby-faced dude responsible for several of the small bites that start the meal. Asked about his tenure at Ko, he excitedly revealed that he’d recently been moved up from the downstairs prep area to the main event. That enthusiasm certainly transferred to the powerfully flavored bites he prepared.

Yes, at $175, the new Ko eclipses the price of its predecessor by a seemingly shocking uptick of $50. Let’s clear this up: It’s actually a deal. Ko previously served an extended lunch for lucky sons of bitches who somehow had three hours to while away in the daylight for the same price — the abbreviated 10-course dinner menu was $125 before the transition. So here we have an extended tasting menu at dinner, for the same price as the lunch menu from the old space, but in upgraded environs and with a fleshed-out beverage portfolio from bar director John Debary (dressed in a festive Christmas sweater on the night I dined) and beverage director Jordan Salcito. A beverage pairing is available for an additional $155.

Some dishes are straightforward fun. A shot of grape soda and grape jelly launches the procession, a nostalgic tease in the same vein as old Ko’s fried apple pie. Other tastes, like smoked trout consomme supporting buoys of trout mousse, or the rye mille-feuille with yuzukosho, trout roe, and matcha green tea powder — ironically prepared by my baby-faced friend — reflect a certain maturity, utilizing restraint while still employing strong flavors. There are also a few familiar faces from Ko menus past, including Chang’s bowl of shaved foie gras torchon over lychee, pine nut brittle, and Riesling jelly, and a take on his egg with soubise onions, caviar, and crispy potatoes, both dishes that have been on the menu since day one. On the evening I ate there, the eggs had been scrambled luxuriously soft. The pairing of buttery onion, supple hen yolk, and crispy potatoes (turned from fingerling chips into a fine crumble) remains over the top, a slug of sweet-potato vinegar the only reprieve from such an onslaught of richness. As before, the eggs come with a plate of sourdough bread and radish butter.

This is less a formal review than it is an overview, so I’ll reserve further judgment other than to say that the concept has made a seamlessly graceful transition; this is just the sort of place to foster that special brand of progressive creativity the Momofuku empire champions. The new room has a dramatic air; dimmed lighting surrounds the bright kitchen, backlit by glass-door fridges and freezers showcasing ingredients. For now, the lounge is open to those with reservations to enjoy an aperitif (the name of one of Debary’s cocktails, which deftly pairs caraway-flavored kümmel liqueur with dry vermouth and verjus) or digestif.

Notably, the no-photo policy is gone, so snap away to your heart’s content. Chang floated back and forth between the restaurant’s new lounge area and the kitchen, conferring with his cooks and prodding a glistening venison loin. He noted that this was the seventh official dinner service (the restaurant is open Wednesdays through Sundays for now, dinner only) and that this team has worked closely together for the past two years. Even in these early days, that camaraderie is evident. Click through for more dish photos.
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