David Chang and his band of Momofuku merrymakers aren’t much for inertia. Over the past decade and a half, they’ve grown from a single, overly ambitious nook of an East Village noodle shop into a multifarious hospitality group with global reach, more than a dozen restaurants and concepts, and a penchant for taking on unconventional projects, like dabbling in delivery-only “ghost” kitchens and publishing a delightfully weird, culturally important food publication (RIP Lucky Peach) that covered everything from cooking stag penis to the intricacies of feeding prisoners. Change has always been one of Chang’s constants, and New Yorkers have witnessed plenty of it as he’s evolved his restaurant stable, transitioning Ssäm Bar from a burrito shop into a pioneering shared plates and large-format dining destination, and upgrading Ko from stripped-down chef’s counter to jacked-up luxury tasting den in its move and subsequent expansion.
Nishi is the latest Momofuku outfit to switch things up. The loosely Asian-Italian restaurant has always been a bit of a testing ground for the company, entertaining a short-lived no-tipping policy and introducing a lunch menu of faux-bleeding meatless Impossible burgers. This fall it underwent a long-overdue top-to-bottom remodeling helmed by manager Emma Conroy and chef Joshua Pinsky, emerging comfier and altogether stronger. For one thing, it’s no longer piercingly loud. And the old cramped communal seating, irksome backless stools, and haphazard design — the result of this location having initially been planned for a branch of Fuku, Chang’s fast-casual fried-chicken sandwich chainlet — have been replaced with roomy banquettes, plush curved booths, and a darker color scheme, lending the space a tonier atmosphere that’s more in line with the kitchen’s aspirations (Chang pulled a similar move at Ssäm Bar last year to equally pleasant effect). Approaching its second birthday, Nishi is finally a place that invites lingering.
The changes are also indicative of Chang’s desire to find homes for his rising stars: “I want our chefs to have their own voices,” he says. Pinsky certainly seems to have found his at Nishi. A Virginia native like his boss, he’s streamlined the Chelsea restaurant’s fusion-y menu and put even more of an emphasis on pasta. Thankfully, the restaurant’s signature tangle of enviably al dente bucatini ceci e pepe ($21), the Roman staple turned vegan by replacing cheese with sweetly funky chickpea miso, still rules. Lobster fra diavolo ($62), the only large-format entrée, perfumes the air with its messy garnish of fried garlic and chopped basil. The hunks of shell-on crustacean huddle around a fulsome mound of bouncy and thick wheat noodles made by cult ramen purveyor Sun Noodle, which are stained ruddy from a chile-packed sauce bolstered by smoked and dried seafood. It doesn’t have the same gravitas as, say, Chang’s famed bo ssam, but the platter turns heads when hauled through the dining room nonetheless.
Some of Pinsky’s best efforts, reminiscent of his time at high roller–magnet Ko, are found on the $58 six-course pasta tasting (or available as full orders à la carte if you ask nicely). Marvel at how fat curls of nicely chewy lumache revel in a ragu built around tender nuggets of freshly made duck sausage, black kale, tangy fermented chile paste, and a fragrant scattering of rosemary. Then there’s chicken liver mousse piped into tiny agnolotti, because anything larger would be richness overkill. The postage stamp–shaped parcels come drenched in garlicky brown butter cut with aged balsamic vinegar and burst like carnivore-friendly Gushers when chewed.
A few old favorites (crispy fried shrimp [$17] eaten whole, red endive [$12] dressed in briny walnut-anchovy sauce) remain, and some of the crudos and newer plates — like a black bass ($30) in lightly peppery acqua pazza broth — feel familiar. And this being a Momofuku joint, you’d be remiss not to spring for some pig. Both the $31 bone-in loin chop (seasoned with rye bonji, a grain-based soy sauce devised by the company’s culinary lab in Brooklyn) and five hour–smoked ribs ($28) sticky with sweet-and-sour garlic sauce are likely some of the most memorable pork dishes you’ll try anytime soon, decadent and complex.
If you’re with a group, stick around for sticky tarte tatin à la mode ($19), baked with tart Granny Smith apples stained russet and pooled with caramel flavored with some of that fermented chickpea miso. You might also consider capping your meal with a recently introduced $20 amaro flight. The trio of Italian and American digestifs might include a carob-hued number from South Carolina made with yaupon, an indigenous type of caffeinated holly. Pistachio bundt cake ($10), a recipe from Pinsky’s mom, makes a triumphant return, though now it’s outshone by maybe the best olive oil cake ($9) I’ve ever tasted, somehow both airy and densely moist. What takes the dessert over the top, though, is the puddle of orange crème anglaise it sits in, the gnarled bits of candied fennel paved over its browned top, and a final aromatic dashing of vanilla-infused olive oil. Like most of the changes Pinsky, Chang, and Co. have made at Nishi, it’s very much for the better.
232 Eighth Avenue
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 15, 2017