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Momofuku Ko (Part 1)


BryanZ
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Just returned from another meal at Ko, the last one was about a month ago. I have to say I was rather disappointed this time around. They've raised the price from $85 to $100 for a meal, and somehow it feels as if things have gone downhill since my last visit. The same dishes were served, but this time no differentation between my companion and I. And maybe it was due to overly lofty expectations, but Ko failed to deliver this time around. The chefs were even more morose and introverted than usual. The waitresses were their usual exuberant selves, but they couldn't make up for the dour faces manning the stoves. The food seemed a little less exciting, though I'm sure that the loss of novelty played a role in my assessment of this most recent visit. But I can't help but wonder ,what justified the $15 price increase? The price of oil? Perhaps. Hubris? More likely. It's a slippery slope towards overexposure and blatant commercialism. With the awards and accolades and reviews, this crew is certainly suspecitble to both. Which is, for me, quite sad.

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foodhunter,

Just had a meal there last week. I also noticed the dour faces behind the bar, quite a contrast from the waitstaff. There was differentiation in almost all of the dishes between my wife and I, with the exception of the amuse (home-made chicharron, and the English muffin) and... I believe the pasta. Every other course was different.

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Just returned from another meal at Ko, the last one was about a month ago.  I have to say I was rather disappointed this time around.  They've raised the price from $85 to $100 for a meal, and somehow it feels as if things have gone downhill since my last visit.  The same dishes were served, but this time no differentation between my companion and I.  And maybe it was due to overly lofty expectations, but Ko failed to deliver this time around.

This is a common reaction when one returns to a restaurant where one has such fond recollections, especially if the menu hasn't changed all that much.

Also, if you went last night, probably half the staff had been up partying till 4:00 a.m. after Chang won the JB award. I'm not suggesting that your disappointing experience was defensible, especially at a $100 cost, but you probably didn't catch them at their best.

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...It's a slippery slope towards overexposure and blatant commercialism.  With the awards and accolades and reviews, this crew is certainly suspecitble to both.  Which is, for me, quite sad.

This sure didn't take long.

"All humans are out of their f*cking minds -- every single one of them."

-- Albert Ellis

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But I can't help but wonder ,what justified the $15 price increase?  The price of oil?  Perhaps.  Hubris?  More likely. 

Supply and demand.

There are a zillion people competing for those dozen seats. Without fail, even on Memorial Day, Momofuku Ko books solid within one minute of the reservations being offered online. But all Momofuku Ko needs to do to have every seat full is book solid within ten thousand minutes (aka one week). So there's quite a bit of leeway to raise prices even if it quiets demand somewhat. I imagine half or a quarter of the current level of demand could support $250 no problem. Maybe not forever, but for the foreseeable future.

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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Yet, Chang put out the not-quite-believable statement that this was simply due to food costs, and next month the price could go back down again.

The textbook profit-maximizing enterprise would go ahead and jack up the price to $250 right now, but for the fact that the PR backlash would be terrible, and it would be embarrassing to have to lower the price after the demand at that level is eventually exhausted.

But look at Per Se. The nine-course menu, originally priced at $150, is now $275. That includes gratuity and the original price did not, so the relevant comparison is about $150 to $230. You can expect prices at Ko to rise in similar proportion over time.

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I'd like to hope the current menu reflects the price increase but I haven't been there recently enough to know if it does. Chang has implied he's serving more courses than when he first opened. If that's true and/or he's delivering more luxury ingredients than he was at the outset then I won't begrudge the extra $15 because it may actually be about food cost. He did change his mind on that extra half-turn he added to the dinner service and he still offers a really affordable corkage so it's not necessarily all about the bottom line. It will be interesting when they add lunch to see how that effects demand and how they price their lunch service.

I'll also agree that it's gotten a lot harder than it was pre-Bruni to get a reservation. I ate there three times in the initial weeks and helped a few friends with resys but have had no luck in the last month.

Edited by jimk (log)
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Food cost may very well be a factor. But the laws of supply and demand are what allow Chang to raise his prices when other restaurants would get creamed for a $85-to-$100 hike. Many other restaurants, faced with the same food-cost issues, are keeping their prices level because price hikes would depress demand. Restaurants like Ko (and Per Se and a few others) don't have to worry about depressing demand because demand so radically exceeds supply anyway. So they can afford to say "We're going to serve more and better, and we're going to charge for it," while so many other restaurants need to serve less or otherwise find creative ways to cut costs in order to maintain current prices.

The Wall Street Journal just covered this issue and the Grub Street Blog picked it up. The Grub Street blog summarized it thus:

Masaharu Morimoto is all for cooking in big batches and then freezing it all away. “Bigger is better,” the big-box chef says, unsurprisingly. “Cook one time. Save gas, save energy.” Not everyone agreed with this Swanson program, however. Michael Psilakis, as one might expect, sung the praises of offal as a solution: “It's really a test of a true chef to take something that may not be the best part of an animal and make something beautiful with it.” David Chang, asked about the subject, doesn't give an inch: Let people pay more — they'll just appreciate the food more. “We'll have a better food culture … Just because [food is] more expensive, don't compromise and buy an inferior product.”

Some might say Chang's position represents a principled stance. Maybe so. But sometimes principles are what you can afford.

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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Just returned from another meal at Ko, the last one was about a month ago.  I have to say I was rather disappointed this time around.  They've raised the price from $85 to $100 for a meal, and somehow it feels as if things have gone downhill since my last visit.  The same dishes were served, but this time no differentation between my companion and I.  And maybe it was due to overly lofty expectations, but Ko failed to deliver this time around.

This is a common reaction when one returns to a restaurant where one has such fond recollections, especially if the menu hasn't changed all that much.

Also, if you went last night, probably half the staff had been up partying till 4:00 a.m. after Chang won the JB award. I'm not suggesting that your disappointing experience was defensible, especially at a $100 cost, but you probably didn't catch them at their best.

actually i don't think i had particularly fond memories of my first visit either, i took ko for what it was. i enjoyed the dishes to the extent that i was able to eat those items that i couldn't get at ssam bar (or some approximation thereof). and i chose to return primarily for those dishes -- the fluke in buttermilk and the kimchee consomme in particular. the second visit was disappointing for a number of reasons.

- first, my dinner companion and i (and, it seemed, the entire restaurant) were no longer being given different dishes with certain courses. that happened to be something we valued. which leads to my second reason...

- it was somewhat fairly priced at $85, but i'm a seller at $100. i take another contributor's point to heart, that ko could raise prices to $250 and beyond and still pack the seats. but i won't be in one of them. $100 puts this menu in a different psychological category. it exceeds the cost of the basic prix fixe at a number of three and four star restaurants in the city. sure, ko serves far more dishes than your average 3 or 4 course meal. but...

- ko is also a highly uncomfortable restaurant to dine at. the blast of heat from the stoves over the course of a 2+ hour meal was an interesting experience a month ago, when it was much cooler in the city. but walking into the restaurant from 90 degree heat on this last visit, and being greeted by the same climate in the restaurant was not at all appealing. degustation just a few blocks away has the same setup but manages to keep patrons comfortable. and yes, those stools at ko really suck.

- finally, i get the whole argument behind chang's low opinion of waiters and waitresses. in fact i think i agreed with it when i read that new yorker piece and that alan richman interview. but it wasn't until i dined at ko that i realized why you have a front of the house staff in the first place. it's to insulate you from all the negative energy behind the counter at ko. once again, i have to draw the comparison to degustation -- wes genovart is there cooking every night for a full house but still manages to crack a smile once in a while. these guys were like angry stone gargoyles all night long. the food at ko is good, but not that good. the funny thing is, i actually like the wait staff at both ssam bar and ko. they're nice, friendly people. too bad they're marginalized at both places. i tried to tip well at ko, but also tried to forget the fact that i was probably tipping the wrong people.

i can't buy the excuse that my less than stellar experience that night was because the chang crew was out partying post james beard awards. that may be true (neither chang nor serpico were there cooking), but in the end it's a $100 meal. if you want to charge the big boy prices, you have to live up to them. if boulud was out till 4am doing tequila shots after getting the big prize, i don't think he would leave the C team to bang out the requisite number of covers the following day.

for the money, i'd rather go to ssam bar. food is on par in terms of creativity and execution if not the ingredients utilized. seating is more comfortable, and i can actually drink wine (the heat at ko makes it impossible to enjoy more than the first few sips of any wine, after which it gets too warm). of course, they will definitely continue to fill those seats even after the inevitable price increases that I'm sure are coming.

it's a pretty sweet gig actually, the three guys behind the counter served a full house on both our visits but never seemed to break a sweat. they spent as much time checking messages on their cellphones as they did cooking and serving customers. chang's definitely a commercial genius. he's found a way to take away the basic amenities of even the most generic restaurant experience while simultaneously charging as much or more than establishments that pride themselves on making those same customers happy. it's the food of course, and that's why i'll keep going to ssam. but here's one less person that'll be madly clicking at little check marks at 10am every morning.

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I went to Ko for the 2nd time Monday night, and I have to say, as much as I loved it the first time, this time was impressively even better, for several reasons.

First, I splurged on the new $150 wine pairing, and I thought all the pairings were exceptional, with some really excellent wines whose style I was familiar with, but also with a couple types I've never heard of, but were very interesting and fun.

Second, I chatted with the guys behind the counter a lot more than the first time. I suspect this was mostly because this time I was alone, while the first time I went soon after it opened I was with my wife, so I was more motivated to chat them up. And also because we could talk about the changes in the menu, but they did seem to be more comfortable with the interaction now that they've settled a bit.

The third and most important thing that made me like it more was the most impressive. Somehow, they kept all the dishes I loved and would have missed, and replaced the few I liked the least from the first time with some exceptional dishes (or in the case of the short rib, vastly improved it.) So I still got the fluke, the egg, and the foie, but also got the new (to me) pea soup with crawfish and morels, the snail lasagna, and an awesome halibut with spicy pepperoncini puree underneath and an offsetting slightly sweet mix of 4 types of something from the greenmarket on top. I loved these much more than I liked the oyster dish and the scallop dish from the first visit. I can't even remember what the 3rd dish they replaced is, or if there was a course added. As for the short rib, I enjoyed it the first time but was slightly disappointed after hearing about it, but this time they have switched to a different source for the meat, keeping the recipe the same, and the results were great.

Anyway, thoroughly excellent, and I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting to (and I was expecting a lot.) I look forward to going back hopefully in a few months to see what else new they come up with.

as an aside, it did seem that they have settled into more of a set menu and that everyone in every party was getting the same dishes, I think I recall them mixing it up a bit more the first time. Given how often one can go, I don't think this is a negative at all. It's one thing if it was likely that someone would go often enough that they'd want different stuff, but I imagine that doesn't happen too often. Although the guys next to me apparently had been recently enough that their menu was essentially the same...

Ed aka Wordsmithing Pantagruel

Food, Cocktails, Travels, and miscellany on my blog:

http://www.wordsmithingpantagruel.com/

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As an aside, it did seem that they have settled into more of a set menu and that everyone in every party was getting the same dishes, I think I recall them mixing it up a bit more the first time.  Given how often one can go, I don't think this is a negative at all.

It's clearly not a negative, but the advantage of mixed coursing is that a couple who share can, in effect, have a 14-course meal. That was the number of distinct items my girlfriend and I were served when we visited.
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I have heard from friends who have dined at ko recently that they are now prohibiting photography inside the restuarant.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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Out of curiousity, what time were you there?  Early, middle or late?

8:30 reservation, but we weren't seated until 8:45. That also may have contributed to the increased interaction with the chefs, since by the end of my dinner service had been completed for at least several of the other seats. The first time I went was at 6:30. The later seating was another reason I liked the second visit more than the first.

Yeah, I did hear them mention that they have started asking people not to use cameras. Understandable, but I will miss seeing pics of the new stuff they develop in the future.

Ed aka Wordsmithing Pantagruel

Food, Cocktails, Travels, and miscellany on my blog:

http://www.wordsmithingpantagruel.com/

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its always a dilemma for restaurants...especially small ones. flash photography can be extremely annoying. someone with a DSLR and a fast lense shooting at a high ISO can get excellent pics without disrupting anyone....but there aren't too many people carrying those into restaurants...

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Is the ban on all cameras or just on flash photography? At Alinea we were asked not to use flash but told that non-flash was fine. That seems a sensible approach.

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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its always a dilemma for restaurants...especially small ones.  flash photography can be extremely annoying.  someone with a DSLR and a fast lense shooting at a high ISO can get excellent pics without disrupting anyone....but there aren't too many people carrying those into restaurants...

There's a clear distinction between restaurants that ask you not to use the flash, and restaurants that ask you not to use the camera at all. Edited by oakapple (log)
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I have heard from friends who have dined at ko recently that they are now prohibiting photography inside the restuarant.

Sorry, I should have been more clear. My friend was not using flash.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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If there is indeed a ban on all photography, not just flash photography, I'd be interested in the reasoning behind it. With flash photography, it's easy: the flash disturbs other diners. But a ban on non-flash photography has to proceed from some other assumption (preserving trade secrets, etc.).

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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If there is indeed a ban on all photography, not just flash photography, I'd be interested in the reasoning behind it. With flash photography, it's easy: the flash disturbs other diners. But a ban on non-flash photography has to proceed from some other assumption (preserving trade secrets, etc.).

This is not based on anything my friend said about his personal experience with the prohibition:

1. Maybe, in a restaurant the size of my closet, Chang & Co. feels that the size of a DSLR capable of taking decent non-food photographs, alone, takes up too much space? Presumably, you'd have to put it on the countertop, since there is nothing else to hang or put your camera on.

2. Maybe certain cooks at ko are nervous/shy around cameras?

3. re: "trade secrets." Perhaps. But, I highly doubt it. There is so much about Chang's food on the blogosphere that I don't see how photographs add *that* much more to conceptualizing the food.

4. Highly doubtful: maybe they have something to hide? I have no idea what this could possibly be. (e.g. something in their kitchen isn't up to code and they're afraid that a captured image of it might get them in trouble).

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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Honestly, I think that it is probably just annoying to DC and his staff when people take pictures during dinner. He's in a position to exert power, and he's banning photography simply because he can. This is just my guess. I wonder if he feels like it takes longer to turn the seats for the next reservation if there are pictures being taken? I have not eaten at KO, are there ever waits for reserved seats?

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I believe Chang has developed such a large ego,which seems to work for him, that he intentionally thinks up of things that will piss people off and cause a debate, and in the end he gets off on it. As a cook who has worked in a popular open kitchen, I must say flash photography does get on your nerves, to the point where I had to ask customers to cool it or go flashless.

If there is indeed a ban on all photography, not just flash photography, I'd be interested in the reasoning behind it. With flash photography, it's easy: the flash disturbs other diners. But a ban on non-flash photography has to proceed from some other assumption (preserving trade secrets, etc.).

This is not based on anything my friend said about his personal experience with the prohibition:

1. Maybe, in a restaurant the size of my closet, Chang & Co. feels that the size of a DSLR capable of taking decent non-food photographs, alone, takes up too much space? Presumably, you'd have to put it on the countertop, since there is nothing else to hang or put your camera on.

2. Maybe certain cooks at ko are nervous/shy around cameras?

3. re: "trade secrets." Perhaps. But, I highly doubt it. There is so much about Chang's food on the blogosphere that I don't see how photographs add *that* much more to conceptualizing the food.

4. Highly doubtful: maybe they have something to hide? I have no idea what this could possibly be. (e.g. something in their kitchen isn't up to code and they're afraid that a captured image of it might get them in trouble).

Edited by nypork (log)
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Not to beat a dead horse (that I couldn't care less about), another member of this board has urged me to explicity state the following:

The fact that my fried had a dSLR camera may have to do with the ban (on him). Whereas a point-and-shoot camera can be discreet, if not invisible (it could be on your phone), by comparison, a dSLR is not. It not only raises flags (e.g. a "pro in disguise") of some kind of press afoot, but there is that issue of it taking up space (or being conspicuous), as I alluded to upthread. Of course, the "pro in disguise" theory links up with what Fat Guy had hypothesized about protecting trade secrets.

Again, I think that any of the above reasons are rather senseless. From a marketing stand-point, I would argue that photographs of Chang's food have contributed a great deal of excitement to the discussion/cachet of his enterprises.

But, I'm not Chang & Co. I don't own ko (or ssam or noodle bar), so I can either be the obedient diner, or, if I am so offended by this photography ban, vote with my dollar (not that he needs it).

I recalled that Gordon Ramsay at the London had such a ban in its opening days. I wonder if that rule has been tabled (pun intended).

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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