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If you’ve dined at Momofuku Ko any time in the past six years, chances are you’ll recognize Josh Pinsky, the executive chef of David Chang’s newest venture, Nishi (232 Eighth Avenue, 646-518-1919) — Japanese for “west.” Strapping and bushy-bearded, he’s easy to spot in a crowd. And boy, did Nishi bring them in on opening night after Chang announced its imminent launch on January 8 via his Lucky Peach magazine. Once word spread, the Chelsea restaurant’s first 6 p.m. service faced a line that snaked around the block.
That’s classic hype for you, but really, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an opening from Chang — the modern dining pioneer and empire-builder’s first new local sit-down concept in half a decade, no less — would cause such a frenzy. City-dwellers acquiesced to waiting in lines during the summer heat for fried-chicken sandwiches at the first of his Fuku outlets, so of course we’re freezing our nips off for seats at this loosely Italian-Korean canteen.
General manager Sara Jimenez confirms that she’s been corralling the masses nightly, telling the Voice that it’s basically been a madhouse all week. As with any white-hot restaurant in this town, to avoid excessive waits you’ll have to get there early or risk the kitchen running out of certain dishes.
Chang has an eye for talent, and here he’s appointed Pinsky and chef de cuisine Carey Hynes (also a Ko alum) to lead the kitchen in executing an à la carte menu of pastas, small plates, and entrées that pull from Eastern and Western cuisines (as is the Momofuku way), but with an emphasis on Italian cooking. So out goes the “cacio” in cacio e pepe, the parmesan replaced by chickpea hozon — a proprietary condiment Chang’s team ferments for months — for Nishi’s Ceci e Pepe ($23). The tangle of buttery, sweet noodles could anchor a Michelin-starred kids menu if not for the salient smack of black pepper. It’s listed under “myun,” the Korean word for noodles, and it joins heftier pastas like Clams Grand Lisboa ($30) — a lush and herbal seafood dish with chow mein noodles cooked partially crisp in the style of Spanish fideos — and Chili Lobster ($36) with chitarra egg noodles (for the launch, Pinsky was using lo mein).
After we’d asked about a pork shoulder dish with white kimchi that was popular in the restaurant’s first few days, Jimenez mentioned that the majority of changes to the menu will center on the entrée section. To wit: A head-on smoked trout has already given way to grilled mackerel ($33) served over braised daikon, and lamb leg ($38) now fills the meaty void left by that vanishing pig meat. Next week, who knows? Snag some rosy slices of lamb while you still can, however. It was a highlight on an initial visit, boasting a sweetness and suppleness abetted by white beans and carrots in an herby sauce.
Small plates keep things light and run the gamut from petite and precious seafood compositions to punchy vegetable salads, including a caesar-like plate of romaine ($14) seasoned with walnuts and anchovies, and a bowl of soft tofu sauced with fermented rye bonji — soy sauce’s tangier cousin. Pinsky’s also shaving thin slices of dry-aged eye round for beef crudo ($24) topped with sharp watermelon radishes and charred scallions, doused in ponzu and rounded out with briny, umami-rich dashi. For an extra $48, you can thrill yourself even more with black truffle shavings.
Nishi also marks Chang’s first foray into the realm of no-tipping policies, but while price-wise it’s the chef-owner’s most expensive non-tasting-menu restaurant, stylistically the place evokes his more casual efforts, such as Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar. There’s the blond wood, of course, and a drinks menu from John deBary, who’s up to his old tricks: cider cocktails, vegetable sodas, and two boozy slushies (limoncello and amaro-affogato). The latter is delightfully airy, its frosty contents buzzing with licorice-flavored digestif and coffee. The $10 tipple could pass as dessert if the kitchen weren’t already putting out two out-the-gate winners.
Pinsky’s mom gets credit among the menu’s substantial footnotes for inspiring a devilishly dense pistachio bundt cake served with a dollop of vanilla-inflected ricotta. Sporting a gorgeous browned crust and buttery crumb, it’s a straight-shooting dessert with “signature” written all over it, though a small crock of panna cotta also sparkles under a sheen of plum vinegar and dots of olive oil.