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BryanZ

Momofuku Ko (Part 1)

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On the basis of one (F&F) meal there:

Some dishes at Ko are better than anything at Ssam Bar. Some are as good as the top level of Ssam Bar's dishes. None is worse.

So I'd say Ko is marginally better than Ssam Bar, but doesn't blow Ssam Bar out of the water.

I need to eat at Ko a few more times to make this determination (har har), but my initial thought is that I prefer Ssam Bar as an experience.

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I'm roughly in agreement with Sneakeater. if you assembled a meal of "greatest hits" at ssam bar you'd have something like the meal at Ko....although a couple dishes (the shaved foie) are better than anything at Ssam Bar (not that people weren't getting trial runs of that dish and others...I ate at Ssam Bar once with Plotnicki in the late fall and they were clearly working on Ko dishes then).

nevertheless, I definitely plan on eating at Ko again soon (I guess I should start trying to make a res...)

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And, of course, plating fans will note that the plating at Ko is much much better than at Ssam Bar.

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So I'd say Ko is marginally better than Ssam Bar, but doesn't blow Ssam Bar out of the water.

A non-regular visiting Ssam Bar would probably be hard-pressed to duplicate a "Ko-like" experience, because there's just no way of telling on that rambling menu which dishes are their best creations.

It sounds like Ko is marginally better than the Ssam Bar meal that you know enough to order perfectly, but quite a bit better than the Ssam Bar meal ordered by someone without specialist knowledge.

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So I'd say Ko is marginally better than Ssam Bar, but doesn't blow Ssam Bar out of the water.

A non-regular visiting Ssam Bar would probably be hard-pressed to duplicate a "Ko-like" experience, because there's just no way of telling on that rambling menu which dishes are their best creations.

It sounds like Ko is marginally better than the Ssam Bar meal that you know enough to order perfectly, but quite a bit better than the Ssam Bar meal ordered by someone without specialist knowledge.

that's a fair point. (and I should also note that dishes come and go so much on the Ssam Bar menu that you can't necessarily put together a "greatest hits" meal on any one night....and a solo diner (or even two people) certainly couldn't)


Edited by Nathan (log)

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So I'd say Ko is marginally better than Ssam Bar, but doesn't blow Ssam Bar out of the water.

A non-regular visiting Ssam Bar would probably be hard-pressed to duplicate a "Ko-like" experience, because there's just no way of telling on that rambling menu which dishes are their best creations.

It sounds like Ko is marginally better than the Ssam Bar meal that you know enough to order perfectly, but quite a bit better than the Ssam Bar meal ordered by someone without specialist knowledge.

I'm not sure I agree, but I think my preference for eating at Ssam is probably specific to my personal taste. I am not a big fan of the scallops dish currently on the Ko menu, and on a non-tasting menu I could avoid it altogether. I know that it is a favorite of many people, but it's just not my thing. Dave H and Sneakeater both loved it. Also, I'm not much of a dessert person- so I'd skip dessert if I had the choice(though I'd take an extra portion of that foie gras in exchange). Ordering well at Ssam Bar probably requires some specialist knowledge, but nothing more than reading these forums. Maybe it's just familiarity, but I just find the food at Ssam Bar a bit more craveable (again, foie gras excepted- I want to eat that every night) and I love picking and choosing my dishes. Also, a "perfectly ordered" meal at Ssam Bar for me would contain fewer dishes than a full tasting menu. There are several "perfectly ordered" meals I could choose, which adds more variety.

On the other hand, I will be very excited to watch Ko evolve and to try different tasting menus as they serve them. I'm psyched about the restaurant as a whole. Essentially, I'll probably want to eat at Ko just about as often as I can get in.

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What would be the price point difference if your tried to do some sort of similar experience at ssam bar?


"A man's got to believe in something...I believe I'll have another drink." -W.C. Fields

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To be clear, as Nathan says, I don't think you could replicate the Ko "experience" at Ssam Bar (nor of course could you replicate the Ssam Bar "experience" at Ko). I'm only saying you could approximate (but not reach) Ko quality at Ssam Bar.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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To be clear, as Nathan says, I don't think you could replicate the Ko "experience" at Ssam Bar (nor of course could you replicate the Ssam Bar "experience" at Ko).  I'm only saying you could approximate (but not reach) Ko quality at Ssam Bar.

Agreed. I would say that it would be difficult to find equally refined dishes at Ssam. That doesn't equal quality, necessarily. The two restaurants are not interchangeable, though the food is in a similar style. Ssam Bar has a much more dominant rustic element.

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if all of Ssam Bar's "greatest hits" were on the menu at the same time...and you had a group of say...six...and ordered all of them...you'd have something like Ko in quality...although the dishes wouldn't be individually plated for each diner and nothing would be quite as refined as the most refined dishes at Ko.

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more to the point:

I enjoyed my meal at Ko immensely. thought it was very very good. but it's not light years beyond Ssam...if you order right. a couple dishes certainly are...but not most of it. of course, that's hardly an insult.

Ko is not David Chang coming out swinging for four stars. that's not it. at least not now. I have no clue what it will be like in six months. (could it get three stars right now? yeah, that's more than possible.)

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more to the point:

I enjoyed my meal at Ko immensely.  thought it was very very good.  but it's not light years beyond Ssam...if you order right.  a couple dishes certainly are...but not most of it.  of course, that's hardly an insult.

Ko is not David Chang coming out swinging for four stars.  that's not it.  at least not now.  I have no clue what it will be like in six months.  (could it get three stars right now?  yeah, that's more than possible.)

Nathan has said exactly what I think, too.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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Ko is not David Chang coming out swinging for four stars.  that's not it.  at least not now.  I have no clue what it will be like in six months.  (could it get three stars right now?  yeah, that's more than possible.)

It's hard to know what David Chang is "swinging for" (unlike Mario Batali, he's not stupid enough to say). But it's pretty apparent that three stars is the floor. I mean, if he puts in an $85 prix fixe, serves only 24 covers a night, and gets the same rating as Ssam Bar, then something's wrong. I'm not saying Bruni couldn't do it (he can do anything), but it would be akin to Gordon Ramsay getting two stars.

Nobody knows what a four-star restaurant is any more, because there hasn't been a new one in such a long time. Sometime in May, Bruni will set a record for the longest interval without a new four-star restaurant being crowned. (That's per Leonard Kim; he looked it up. You can find the post somewhere on the Bruni & Beyond thread.)

My guess is that Bruni, who has built his whole oeuvre on the alleged irrelevance of traditional luxury dining, is just dying to make news by awarding four stars to a restaurant that breaks the old paradigm. Ruth Reichl wanted to do it too, but she couldn't. Bruni, like Reichl, has enough integrity that he won't do it willy-nilly. But you can be sure he's thinking about it.

I suspect the Ko review will be beyond May in any case, simply because of the difficulty of getting in the requisite number of anonymous visits.


Edited by oakapple (log)

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I'd argue that Chang wass probably aiming for two stars as his floor. Much as he probably expected one star for Ssam Bar--I believe he said this in Eater or something--he probably expects two as the minimum at Ko. Three would seem to be the best case for Chang (and certainly within the realm of possible), as I really can't imagine it receiving four. This place doesn't seem to be better than Robuchon, and Bruni probably won't award four stars taking price alone into account.

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I'd argue that Chang wass probably aiming for two stars as his floor.  Much as he probably expected one star for Ssam Bar.

Yes, but having received two stars at Ssam Bar, to get the identical rating at Ko would be a disappointment to all concerned. I just don't think there can be any doubt about that.

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I agree with Nathan and Sneakeater: there's quite a bit of overlap in quality with an all-star best/most refined lineup of Ssam/Noodle Bar over the past year and a half, but the ideas are altogether marginally more elegant and the plating is of course on a totally different level. (And the best dishes are better than anything that's come out of Ssam Bar.) On the other hand Ko doesn't eclipse the Ssam Bar hall of fame in terms of straight-up inventiveness and deliciousness, but probably no restaurant in the world does.

It is really difficult for me to see Bruni not giving Ko three stars. But it's certainly not a four star restaurant at this point; the food may be close, but the service experience is light years away. It'll get better as things get tweaked and the cooks get more comfortable and the waitresses more knowledgeable, but I don't see any way for the Ko format to really reach a four star experience.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'll probably want to go back every couple months, or every time they completely revamp the menu, whichever is slower.

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I agree with Nathan and Sneakeater: there's quite a bit of overlap in quality with an all-star best/most refined lineup of Ssam/Noodle Bar over the past year and a half, but the ideas are altogether marginally more elegant and the plating is of course on a totally different level. (And the best dishes are better than anything that's come out of Ssam Bar.) On the other hand Ko doesn't eclipse the Ssam Bar hall of fame in terms of straight-up inventiveness and deliciousness...

If the ideas are marginally more elegant, and the best dishes are better than anything that's come out of Ssam Bar, then how can you say it fails to eclipse Ssam Bar in terms of straight-up inventiveness and deliciousness?
...but probably no restaurant in the world does.
Hyperbole.
Edited by oakapple (log)

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I agree with Nathan and Sneakeater: there's quite a bit of overlap in quality with an all-star best/most refined lineup of Ssam/Noodle Bar over the past year and a half, but the ideas are altogether marginally more elegant and the plating is of course on a totally different level. (And the best dishes are better than anything that's come out of Ssam Bar.) On the other hand Ko doesn't eclipse the Ssam Bar hall of fame in terms of straight-up inventiveness and deliciousness...

If the ideas are marginally more elegant, and the best dishes are better than anything that's come out of Ssam Bar, then how can you say it fails to eclipse Ssam Bar in terms of straight-up inventiveness and deliciousness?
Because elegance, and other factors like clarity of ideas and plating aesthetics, are orthogonal to inventiveness and deliciousness??
...but probably no restaurant in the world does.
Hyperbole.

You haven't eaten much at Ssam Bar. On those two criteria--inventiveness and deliciousness--I would put my top, say, 6 or 7 Ssam Bar dishes over the past year and a half up against any restaurant I've ever eaten at. Which obviously misses by far the majority of the world's great restaurants, but hits a number of them as well. This is partially unfair because I've eaten at Ssam Bar many more times than any of these other ones, but the menu at Ssam Bar changes more frequently as well. I chose my words fairly carefully--remember, I did not say no other restaurant was the equal of Ssam Bar on these measures, I said none eclipsed it--and did not intend it to be hyperbolic.

On the other hand, I really can't claim any representative experience outside of the US. So I'll amend my statement to "but very likely no restaurant in America does."


Edited by Dave H (log)

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Two days ago I got food poisoning. I think it was from spinach pie that had been languishing in the danger zone of lukewarm temperatures ideal for microbial growth. Or maybe it was just a stomach virus that had nothing to do with food. In any event, it was bad for a number of reasons not least of which was that it created a degree of uncertainty over whether I’d be able to make my hard-won 9:45pm reservation at Momofuku Ko tonight.

In the morning, I experimented with bread. I seemed to be able to tolerate that. In the afternoon, I escalated to pasta. Again, no problem. But I was nonetheless exhausted, drained by the ordeal. At 7pm I was still undecided. At 8:30pm I decided to cancel the reservation, but as my finger hovered over the button on my mouse I lost my nerve. After all, when would I get another chance to go to Ko? It’s not exactly easy to get a reservation, and I’m heading out of town soon for a couple of weeks, and then who knows what will happen? I wasn’t going to let three days of obsessive 10am mouse-clicking go to waste. I steeled myself and headed out into the night.

I arrived at Ko 12 minutes early. Now, those of you who have seen the reservation confirmation email from Ko know that there’s firm language about how you’ll lose your seat if you’re 15 minutes late. So it seems to me that 12 minutes early means I did a good job timing the subways so as to avoid lateness while not being ridiculously early. I was therefore a bit taken aback when the waitress who greeted me barked “You’re early,” as though I had done something wrong. What was I supposed to do? Stand out in the street until exactly 9:45pm?

Service at Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar has, in my experience, tended to be quite good. The warmth and knowledge of the servers is one of the nice surprises of eating at those two Momofukus. In general, the service at Ko does not replicate that experience, in part because the actual servers (the two waitresses) at Ko aren’t very good and in part because the cooks, who provide most of the service, are culinary professionals not service professionals. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the interaction with our cook. I did, especially towards the end of the meal as the restaurant emptied out and he loosened up. And the structure of the menu and the design of the restaurant are such that there’s not a lot of practical need for service beyond bringing and describing food and wine. Still, given that Ko is now the flagship the servers need to be trained at least up to Ssam Bar standards, and preferably higher.

Underdeveloped service and uncomfortable chairs (backless stools at Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar are one thing, but they’re a backbreaking choice for a two-hour tasting-menu format) are the extent of my complaints about Ko. The food is the logical next step after the first two Momofuku incarnations. It’s a more evolved, refined, precise implementation of the same culinary aesthetic. It starts at the haute end of the Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar spectrum and the goes beyond. There have always been dishes at Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar that could fit right in at restaurants on the Jean Georges level, but every dish at Ko is on that level. Although I did find myself thinking, about halfway through the meal, how nice it would be to have some pork buns and a plate of country ham. Part of what makes Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar so appealing is that effortless admixture of haute and rustic. Ko is all haute.

There were several comprehensive early reports on the individual dishes, so I won’t pile on. The foie gras, pork belly, scallop and short rib dishes are particular triumphs. In the year 2008 it’s no longer surprising or even worthy of comment when you go to a good restaurant and get good ingredients, but some of the ingredients they’re using at Ko are revelatory. Those scallops, which apparently hail from New Jersey, are better than what I’ve had at some of the most expensive sushi restaurants in town. I’ve never had better pork belly, ingredient-wise. Likewise, Asian ingredients and techniques are so much a part of American culinary culture now that the term “fusion” is no longer relevant, but Ko really raises the bar when it comes to effortless multicultural haute cuisine. Desserts, for the time being, are rudimentary; that’s the one area of the meal where I felt I’ve had several superior items at Ssam Bar.

I had a reservation for one, and I got seated next to a lovely woman who was also a solo diner. I’m glad that happened because, as we were chatting about favorite restaurants and other points of commonality it hit me that the Momofukus are today’s incarnation of Le Cirque, or at least what I imagine Le Cirque was like in its heyday. Of course in many ways Momofuku and Le Cirque are so different that comparing them seems bizarre, and I bet Le Cirque is the restaurant that Momofuku adherents are most likely to have contempt for, but each is a foundational restaurant for a certain place, time and culture. While all the Momofukus adopt a militant food-focused stance, the Momofuku phenomenon can’t be comprehended without reference to its clientele any more than Le Cirque can. In retrospect, just about every time I’ve dined at one of the Momofukus I’ve met new people and seen people I know.

I thought back to the time I was at Noodle Bar (when Ko was Noodle Bar) and wound up sitting next to Herve This’s editor from Columbia University Press. I later saw her at an Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting and a woman tried to introduce us. When we said we’d already met at Momofuku, the woman said, “Everybody meets at Momofuku!” What she meant was that the Momofukus are Le Cirque for today’s twenty- and thirty-something foodies (plus older folks who are exceptionally cool). As I approach no longer being a thirty-something foodie, it’s a pleasure to be part of the Momofuku moment.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Underdeveloped service and uncomfortable chairs (backless stools at Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar are one thing, but they’re a backbreaking choice for a two-hour tasting-menu format) are the extent of my complaints about Ko.

Out of curiosity, how would you compare the service/seating to that of the high-end sushi bars in town?


---

al wang

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Over in the other topic on Ko where we have been debating the reservations system, Sneakeater mentioned a new dish he had at Ko the other night of Striped Bass with Huckleberry and Fried Lotus. Sounds delicious to me and Sneakeater gave the dish a thumbs up. Hats off to Chang for having the creative vision to dream up an intriguing combination of flavors-the tartness of the wild huckleberry paired with sea bass.

How was the striped bass cooked and how were the huckleberries used in the dish? Were the huckleberries used in a sauce or served as whole berries? How did you feel the tart, yet sweet flavor of the huckleberries accented the flavor of the fish? Did the huckleberries overpower the fish?

I live in the land where huckleberries grow wild. We tend to use the huckleberry in traditional recipes in sweet dishes like pancakes, breads and jams and then in savory dishes like sauces for wild game.

I'm always interested in how chefs outside of the Pacific Northwest use the huckleberry in new ways that we haven't thought of. Thanks for your thoughts on this dish.

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backless stools at Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar are one thing, but they’re a backbreaking choice for a two-hour tasting-menu format

I had this thought too, as I was looking at the photos. It strikes me as easily correctable. There are restaurants in town where the bar stools are so comfortable that you want to take one home to your living room. Heck, just 12 more of the ones Ducasse has at Adour would do the trick (obviously not with the same upholstery).

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...but probably no restaurant in the world does.
Hyperbole.

You haven't eaten much at Ssam Bar. On those two criteria--inventiveness and deliciousness--I would put my top, say, 6 or 7 Ssam Bar dishes over the past year and a half up against any restaurant I've ever eaten at....

On the other hand, I really can't claim any representative experience outside of the US. So I'll amend my statement to "but very likely no restaurant in America does."

Even as modified, I can't imagine that there's a representative percentage of restaurants all over the USA where you have the same depth of experience as at Ssam Bar. It's just not humanly possible.

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How was the striped bass cooked and how were the huckleberries used in the dish?  Were the huckleberries used in a sauce or served as whole berries?  How did you feel the tart, yet sweet flavor of the huckleberries accented the flavor of the fish?  Did the huckleberries overpower the fish? 

The fish was not cooked. It was raw.

The huckleberries were used in a cold thin sauce. It didn't overpower the fish (which to me is the miracle of the dish). So you got a kind of mellow fishiness accented with what you perfectly describe as the tart sweet flavor of the sauce. It's like the fish cuts the tartness of the huckleberries, while the huckleberries cut the sort of mushiness of the fish.

BTW -- That dish wasn't at Ko, but at Ssam Bar.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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