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Momofuku Ko (Part 2)


Fat Guy
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[Moderator note: The original Momofuku Ko topic became too large for our servers to handle efficiently, so we've divided it up; the preceding part of this discussion is here: Momofuku Ko (Part 1)]

 

 

 

 

There's a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Ray Sokolov that talks about Ko and Minibar. I usually agree with or at least strongly respect Sokolov's views and think he's one of the most sensible dining commentators out there, but I think he's dead wrong on key points here.

One theory Sokolov puts forth is:

"Minibar and Ko are following a path blazed by El Bulli in Spain, the Fat Duck near London, wd50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago."

I think it's factually incorrect to lump Ko together with Minibar and the rest of the places on that list. It's true that there's a little bit of sous-vide and other technology in play at Ko, but no more than at Per Se, Bouley or Gramercy Tavern. Indeed, Ko is quite rigorous about sourcing ingredients from small farmers and the like. It's not all the way in Blue Hill territory, but it's more along those lines than it is along El Bulli lines.

Sokolov also belittles the food at Minibar and, to a lesser extent, at Ko. But I think he goes way to far when he concludes:

"If you like small plates and odd ingredients, try walking in to your local dim sum palace. The seats have backs. There are tables and servers. And you don't need adolescent reflexes with a mouse."

Sokolov's tastes couldn't possibly be that pedestrian, or his thinking that reductive. I do think, however, that he might like the Kitchen Counter at Beacon more than he liked either Minibar or Ko.

Edited by Mjx
Moderator note added. (log)

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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That article read like it was slapped together on a deadline to fill half a page. Especially the lame conclusion. "Like small food? Try dim sum!" Ignoring tapas, omakase, the entire existence of tasting menus... the mind boggles.

Cooking and writing and writing about cooking at the SIMMER blog

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It seems like he totally misses the point. The only similarity among the places cited is the difficulty in acquiring reservations. It also seems like he wanted to get "revenge" on Ko for making reservations so tough to come by, much as many reviewers savaged Waverly Inn (probably deservedly in that case) just to give payback for the seemingly exclusionary reservation situation. I've eaten at all the restaurants cited except for Minibar, and think he's way off the mark. If anything, Chang's goal has always been to remove the formality of meal structure, so Sokolov's yearning for chair backs, special service and the like is almost like criticizing a Radiohead concert for not playing more Stravinsky. Time for him to accept that not every restaurant feels compelled to treat him like royalty just because he's a member of the food press. He sounds like someone pouting outside the door of the latest hot club.

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I do think he gives that impression but I really don't think that's what Sokolov is about. (I also don't think he was rushing to fill column space -- he traveled to DC, not to mention the Wall Street Journal is very methodical.) I'll propose an alternate theory: I think it may just be a generational thing. Sokolov is 65+ and has mostly stayed on top of things, and he has great insight on many aspects of gastronomy from fine dining to hamburgers. But when it comes to understanding trends and happenings at the leading edge of the culinary culture, he seems to be a bit tone deaf to the nuances at play here.

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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It seems like he totally misses the point.  The only similarity among the places cited is the difficulty in acquiring reservations.  It also seems like he wanted to get "revenge" on Ko for making reservations so tough to come by, much as many reviewers savaged Waverly Inn (probably deservedly in that case) just to give payback for the seemingly exclusionary reservation situation.  I've eaten at all the restaurants cited except for Minibar, and think he's way off the mark.  If anything, Chang's goal has always been to remove the formality of meal structure, so Sokolov's yearning for chair backs, special service and the like is almost like criticizing a Radiohead concert for not playing more Stravinsky.  Time for him to accept that not every restaurant feels compelled to treat him like royalty just because he's a member of the food press.  He sounds like someone pouting outside the door of the latest hot club.

From what you've written, one would think he hated Ko, which isn't the case at all. It seems that when a critic shows less than the requisite level of rapture with one of Chang's places, people think the critic "just doesn't get it." Well, maybe they do get it. No chef and no restaurant is loved by everybody. Doesn't happen.

His complaints (the backless stools, the reservations process, etc.) are certainly not new. Many critics, both pro and amateur, have made similar complaints.

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I don't think the dynamic of pro-Chang or anti-Chang really needs to come into play here. Sokolov simply said some things that are pretty plainly wrong. Momofuku Ko is not a derivative of elBulli. It just isn't. I was there last night discussing it with the cooks and they couldn't even conceive of why anybody would say that -- and they're right to be puzzled. Meanwhile, the dim sum comment is entirely off base. (Not to mention, I think Sokolov is dead wrong in his assessment of Minibar -- but that's for another topic.) So even though he says nice things about Ko's food, he does so against a backdrop that undermines any comment -- positive or negative -- that he makes about the place.

There are and were legitimate criticisms of Ko. It's very good but not as good as its popularity would or should indicate. Service was scandalously weak when it opened (it has improved dramatically), and the creature comforts (like the stupid stools) could still use serious improvement. But it's not comparable to dim sum and it's not elBulli light. It simply is not either of those things.

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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It's one thing to disagree with Sokolov on whether those other restaurants are comparable, but these comments seem to suggest that there is something wrong with people who choose not to join Chang's "club":

If anything, Chang's goal has always been to remove the formality of meal structure, so Sokolov's yearning for chair backs, special service and the like is almost like criticizing a Radiohead concert for not playing more Stravinsky.  Time for him to accept that not every restaurant feels compelled to treat him like royalty just because he's a member of the food press.  He sounds like someone pouting outside the door of the latest hot club.
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To me, it reads like he's a little bitter about it being trendy, and also like he simply doesn't "get it." Maybe, like Fat Guy said, it's an age thing. Maybe not. Regardless, he comes off as an outsider looking in on this trend, perhaps jealous that it doesn't work for him.

Eerily similar to how I feel about Cochon... Another topic, though.

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To me, it reads like he's a little bitter about it being trendy, and also like he simply doesn't "get it."  Maybe, like Fat Guy said, it's an age thing.  Maybe not.  Regardless, he comes off as an outsider looking in on this trend, perhaps jealous that it doesn't work for him.

Why would you assume that? Here's a guy who has spent decades writing about restaurants. Sometimes, he's just not going to like something as much as you or I do. One need not invent subtexts ("bitter", "old", "jealous") to explain it. Anyhow, he didn't dislike it; he just failed to "love it" as much as some other people. That's why I say marvel at the amazing excuses given whenever anyone is the least bit critical of David Chang.
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It seems like he totally misses the point.  The only similarity among the places cited is the difficulty in acquiring reservations.  It also seems like he wanted to get "revenge" on Ko for making reservations so tough to come by, much as many reviewers savaged Waverly Inn (probably deservedly in that case) just to give payback for the seemingly exclusionary reservation situation.  I've eaten at all the restaurants cited except for Minibar, and think he's way off the mark.  If anything, Chang's goal has always been to remove the formality of meal structure, so Sokolov's yearning for chair backs, special service and the like is almost like criticizing a Radiohead concert for not playing more Stravinsky.  Time for him to accept that not every restaurant feels compelled to treat him like royalty just because he's a member of the food press.  He sounds like someone pouting outside the door of the latest hot club.

From what you've written, one would think he hated Ko, which isn't the case at all. It seems that when a critic shows less than the requisite level of rapture with one of Chang's places, people think the critic "just doesn't get it." Well, maybe they do get it. No chef and no restaurant is loved by everybody. Doesn't happen.

His complaints (the backless stools, the reservations process, etc.) are certainly not new. Many critics, both pro and amateur, have made similar complaints.

Fair enough...I suppose my reaction was a bit overplayed considering. I was just frustrated at his comparisons, which seemed sloppy, regardless of how much he liked/disliked the food. I think Fat Guy may have nailed it on the head with the generational thing: call it the "Mariani Factor" :)

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It's one thing to disagree with Sokolov on whether those other restaurants are comparable, but these comments seem to suggest that there is something wrong with people who choose not to join Chang's "club":
If anything, Chang's goal has always been to remove the formality of meal structure, so Sokolov's yearning for chair backs, special service and the like is almost like criticizing a Radiohead concert for not playing more Stravinsky.  Time for him to accept that not every restaurant feels compelled to treat him like royalty just because he's a member of the food press.  He sounds like someone pouting outside the door of the latest hot club.

I don't agree. I'm not a member of the "Temple of Chang". I like Ssam, but have had both good and bad meals there. I think Noodle is good, but have had quite a few meals there that weren't memorable. As FG points out above, I was highlighting the ways in which Sokolov misses the point in terms of what he is trying to achieve. After all, how do you know I like Stravinsky better than Radiohead? As it happens, I don't...I find them equal but different....which was my point. And he did, in my mind, seem to be pouty in several quotes. I'm still sticking with the Mariani Effect (although to be fair, Mariani has finally made an effort to at least pretend to open his mind of late).

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To me, it reads like he's a little bitter about it being trendy, and also like he simply doesn't "get it."  Maybe, like Fat Guy said, it's an age thing.  Maybe not.  Regardless, he comes off as an outsider looking in on this trend, perhaps jealous that it doesn't work for him.

Why would you assume that? Here's a guy who has spent decades writing about restaurants. Sometimes, he's just not going to like something as much as you or I do. One need not invent subtexts ("bitter", "old", "jealous") to explain it. Anyhow, he didn't dislike it; he just failed to "love it" as much as some other people. That's why I say marvel at the amazing excuses given whenever anyone is the least bit critical of David Chang.

I would assume that because that's how it read to me. I don't make an effort to come up with "amazing excuses" for David Chang. I've never eaten his food, and I have no bias toward either party in this matter. But given that I perceive Sokolov's article as sounding particularly harsh about certain aspects of the Ko experience that others have quite easily gotten over, it appears to me as though his review overemphasized certain faults in arriving at "not loving it" as much as others. Also, I think Fat Guy and others have made excellent points regarding the inaccuracy of Sokolov's comparisons to other establishments.

Please, though, don't jump to the conclusion that I'm blindly defending David Chang, when I have backed up my unbiased responses with my own support and the support of others' opinions.

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But I didn't really sense "bitterness" or "jealousy" in his comments, and I would be curious to know what quotes from that article gave you this impression?

Yeah, he may not have liked some things that other critics liked, but normally one chalks that up to reasonable disagreement among professionals. Inaccuracy is a whole other matter, and I'm not defending him on that score.

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Really, it's this paragraph.

"So it does seem a shame that gastronomes who don't click fast enough to get a reservation will never eat at Ko. Yet this isn't a restaurant for people with long attention spans and a limited appetite for novelty -- even when the individual ingredients are superb and superbly prepared."

It just seems as though he lays too much reflection on the fact that it isn't a typical restaurant. Maybe he doesn't like the reservation system, chairs, etc., but the suggestion that you might as well get dim sum from a neighborhood place doesn't seem to gel with his assertion that the ingredients are superb and superbly prepared. I suppose that it may be because I tend to take much less stock in restaurants outside of the food. i notice when service is very good or very bad, or when other things are extremely noteworthy, but for me, if the food is at a very high level, I can look past quite a bit else.

In reading the piece again, I will note that apart from the end, the piece is not crammed with bitterness. I just get strong tinges toward the end, which make me question the sincerity of the rest of the article.

Edited by MikeHartnett (log)
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Marc, I think you should re-read Sokolov's piece. It's a broadside against the very notion of restaurants like Ko, and an ill-informed one at that. Sokolov decided what to write, not anybody else. He sets up the generational conflict with language like:

In this presidential-election year, hordes of people in their 20s and 30s are energized by trying to usher in what they see as a new era in Washington. But in a handful of urban enclaves, another group of young people is bucking the culinary establishment by cramming into tiny counter-service restaurants, where they pay high prices for avant-garde meals that tweak the status quo.

So he gets that he's commenting on a youthful aspect of the dining culture, but he then proceeds to ridicule rather than try to understand it. He chooses language like:

We got our reservation at Ko the hip way.
it does seem a shame that gastronomes who don't click fast enough to get a reservation will never eat at Ko.

(note there's a contradiction between the latter claim and the way he got the reservation)

and

And you don't need adolescent reflexes with a mouse.

That's disdain, plain and simple.

He also, as I've explained, totally misunderstands the cuisine at Ko:

Minibar and Ko are following a path blazed by El Bulli in Spain, the Fat Duck near London, wd50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago.

Followed by more disdain:

But it takes a genius, like Ferran Adria at El Bulli or Grant Achatz at Alinea, to make such prestidigitations work consistently on the palate. And neither Minibar's Mr. Andrés nor Ko's David Chang is a genius.

If that doesn't bring to mind Lloyd Bentsen lecturing Dan Quayle -- "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" -- I don't know what does. But it's not like David Chang has made a claim to genius or compared himself to Adria. Indeed, the whole comparison is utterly without foundation. It is the very definition of a straw-man argument.

Yes, Sokolov does grudgingly acknowledge some good food at Ko. But read as a whole the piece is a drive-by.

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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  • 1 month later...
Lunch reservations are live now.

Anyone notice that the lunch prix fixe is considerably more expensive than dinner (which is atypical) and that they recommend reserving a longer window to eat? Anyone have thoughts or info on how they're planning to do lunch and what will be different?

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Lunch is a single sitting with more courses and more luxury ingredients, at least this was the plan last time I had dinner there.

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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It will be interesting to see if this new lunch offering at Ko becomes what the late-night menu at Ssam Bar first was, an insider's way to get some of the most exciting food in the city largely insulated from the majority of the dining population. This seems, to me, to be a bold move and in direct contrast to many distinctive fine-dining restaurants who make themselves much more accessible at lunch--JG being the most obvious and most lauded example.

Although the dining room at Ko is clearly not built for volume, why not offer something like a five-course menu for $65 or $75 and get people out of the door in 1.5 hours? Perhaps this was considered?

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I just came back from a trip to Blue Hill at Stone Barns and I have to say, as much as I liked Ko (I've been twice), I now doubt whether I'll go back.

I just don't think I can justify paying that much for food with so little service. The price of the new Ko lunch made my jaw drop...

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I just came back from a trip to Blue Hill at Stone Barns and I have to say, as much as I liked Ko (I've been twice), I now doubt whether I'll go back.

I just don't think I can justify paying that much for food with so little service. The price of the new Ko lunch made my jaw drop...

Have you been there recently? The service is much improved.

Also, apples and oranges on cost cuz Stone Barns is in Tarrytown.

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It will be interesting to see if this new lunch offering at Ko becomes what the late-night menu at Ssam Bar first was, an insider's way to get some of the most exciting food in the city largely insulated from the majority of the dining population.  This seems, to me, to be a bold move and in direct contrast to many distinctive fine-dining restaurants who make themselves much more accessible at lunch--JG being the most obvious and most lauded example.

Maybe, but I think it's more likely that the lunch decision proceeded directly from the facts on the ground. For one thing, the "lunch hour" is much shorter than the dinner hour, so it's not really possible to do multiple sittings in the Ko format unless you're sitting people so late into the afternoon that you run up against dinner. For another thing, it's politically difficult to raise the dinner price but there's so much demand for Ko that they have to figure out ways to allow people who are dying to spend more money to do that. And for still another thing, the lunch reservations are -- like the dinner reservations -- essentially being given out at random. So it's not like some self-selecting group of super-foodies will all of a sudden become the Ko lunch club.

Although the dining room at Ko is clearly not built for volume, why not offer something like a five-course menu for $65 or $75 and get people out of the door in 1.5 hours?  Perhaps this was considered?

I bet it was considered but decided against. Anything less than the full experience would likely be resented by customers. Remember, the overwhelming majority of Ko customers eat there once. The demand situation is such that offering a half-experience at lunch would just be annoying to those who know they'll not return any time soon.

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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I don't think a half-length meal would necessarily be rejected or resented by the customers. At least among the eG set, lunch at Jean Georges seems to be the preferred meal. There's this idea that it's more relaxed, more flexible, and certainly less expensive. To this extent, lunch is pretty much always recommended by "foodies in the know" as something of a "secret" (certainly more so than dinner) much like the original late-night menu at Ssam was.

Of course, this isn't to say a shorter lunch experience would be better, it just would strike me as more likely or obvious. Then again, Momofuku has been known to go against the grain and succeed with the unexpected.

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I don't think a half-length meal would necessarily be rejected or resented by the customers.  At least among the eG set, lunch at Jean Georges seems to be the preferred meal.  There's this idea that it's more relaxed, more flexible, and certainly less expensive.  To this extent, lunch is pretty much always recommended by "foodies in the know" as something of a "secret" (certainly more so than dinner) much like the original late-night menu at Ssam was.

Of course, this isn't to say a shorter lunch experience would be better, it just would strike me as more likely or obvious.  Then again, Momofuku has been known to go against the grain and succeed with the unexpected.

I wish they'd issue me a pass now that I've been a few times so I could go back and order a la carte. Honestly, I'd be in and out in 20 minutes.

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The reasons lunch at Jean Georges is so desirable are:

1 - It's a huge bargain -- you get a reasonable facsimile of the dinner food (albeit with fewer luxury ingredients) for less than half the price of dinner and for an objectively low-low price by the standards of fine-dining restaurants. That's because Jean Georges can barely get people to eat lunch there -- the restaurant basically has to give the food away at break-even.

2 - There's flexibility in ordering. You can have a three-hour, many-course meal experience if that's what you want -- yet you'll still pay less than you would for dinner.

3 - The room is beautiful in daylight, even more so than at night.

4 - The pace of service is relaxed.

Which of those 4 things could be true at Ko?

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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All of those four reasons are valid, but one must weigh them accordingly. I would hazard that the most significant reason for Jean Georges' popularity at lunch is due to reason 1 to the extent that the others are rendered effectively insignificant (i.e., no matter how beautiful the room, relaxed the service, or flexible the menu, lunch would not be recommended nearly as often as it is now if it was priced at or near current dinner prices).

So to return to reason 1, yes, in absolute terms the price is low, but to me, and the reason I see it recommended here on eG, isn't necessarily for this low absolute dollar amount. More importantly, you're getting a much cheaper, as you put it, facsimile of a distinctive dining experience at a more accessible price point. You can say, "I went to Jean Georges, the Michelin three-star restaurant," no matter if you got six courses with cheese and two desserts or just the standard two plates for $28.

In much the same fashion, if Ko could theoretically do two seatings at lunch offering an abbreviated menu people could get a "taste" of the Ko experience. People who go into lunch at Jean Georges know they're not eating dinner. I don't see why the people savvy enough to have read up on Ko and faced the reservation system couldn't adjust their expectations accordingly.

Surely, there could be logistical or financial issues at play here that I'm not privvy to. I just don't see how one could debate the theoretical viability of a "Ko-lite" at lunch. Whether a short, high-volume, lower-cost lunch would be more financially successful than what is currently being planned is beyond the scope of this discussion at present.

Edited by BryanZ (log)
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