David Chang's Momofuku empire started its humble beginnings with Noodle Bar, on 1st between 10th and 11th in New York City's East Village. Four years later he opened Ko on the same block, quickly earning two Michelin stars.
I became slightly Momofuku obsessed last April after having dinner at Noodle Bar during an impromptu trip to New York City. It was so tasty that we found ourselves at Milk Bar on 2nd and 13th for dessert. The following day? Ssäm Bar for lunch.
Three Momofuku locations conquered, three more to go... in New York City. Chang sports additional restaurants in Toronto and Sydney.
My food-friend and Brooklyn resident Kevin and I visited these first three restaurants together. Next up on our list was Ko. For months we anticipated eating there during an upcoming trip to NYC - but there was one problem.
Ko only takes dinner reservations 10 days in advance. And the restaurant has 12 seats.
Not tables, seats.
In 2010 Anthony Bourdain called it "the most sought-after and hardest-to-get-reservation in America." Kevin and I were nervous. Even having a connection to the restaurant (which we did) wouldn't help. Chang famously makes exceptions for no-one, including celebrity chefs and even his own parents.
Reservations are online only. Scoring one is reminiscent of buying concert tickets the minute they go on sale. So at 6:45 AM Pacific on Sunday, May 4, I logged on to my Momofuku account, selected a seating for two (they only allow parties of 1, 2, o 4, due to space limitations), and waited until 6:59. I hit refresh every few seconds. At 7 AM, a page magically loaded with selections for Tuesday, May 31. I selected 7 PM - that seemed like a good time for dinner - hit next, and we were in.
A Phoenix-based couple who dined next to us thought that the online-only reservation system was biased against the less technologically savvy. They weren't surprised that us "young folks with quick fingers" made it in.
Kevin and I met at the corner of 1st and 10th just before 7 PM. The restaurant is unmarked except for a small peach on the door with "Ko" written below - Momofuku's signature.
To the right is the only photo we took. Ko has a strict no cell phone or photography policy. As an avid foodstagrammer, I was at first annoyed. If I'm paying $125+ for a meal, I should damn well be able to document it. But I have to admit, turning off my phone and focusing entirely on the food - the sight, smell, feel, and taste - and interacting with the staff from behind the long, narrow bar in front of the open kitchen was an incredible experience.
We kicked off the evening with a bottle of Tragolargo - a fruity, full bodied but not overpowering Spanish red. It paired nicely with the meal.
We were served 5 mise en bouche, 10 courses, and bread:
Mise en bouche
Fried, dehydrated pork skin.
Very light and refreshing, bright green.
Flaxseed cracker, whipped tofu, pickled strawberry
Cracker was light and delicate. Strawberry was delicious, with opaque light green hue.
Celery panna cotta, crisped wild rice
Sweetness balanced nicely. Rice was a nice touch.
Flattened apple, homemade ricotta, sesame seeds
Apple was a tiny, light, opaque circle. Great combination of flavors.
Red snapper tartare, fish bone jelly, green chili, shiso
Snapper didn't taste raw - flavorful and creamy. Shiso is an Asian herb similar to mint.
Steamed trout mousse, kale powder, smoked trout, consommé, pickled sunchokes, dill
Amazing presentation. Mousse was shaped like truffles and coated in kale powder. Broth was spicy and smoky - likely cooked with lots of bacon. Many flavors going on; umami to the max.
Yellowtail hamachi, avocado purée, radish vinaigrette, rye breadcrumbs
Flavorful fish. Avocado was creamy. Radish vinaigrette was a nice layer. Rye breadcrumbs were strong and added fun texture.
Smoked, soft boiled egg, American caviar, sweet potato vinaigrette, fingerling chips, onion sous vide
This is known as the "Ko Egg." Perfectly cooked egg. Caviar wasn't too salty (as I've had with other caviar experiences). Potato vinaigrette was out of this world. Of course it's hard to go wrong with sweet, soft onions.
Sourdough bread, radish butter
Amazing bread, great crust. Dark tinted so must have been whole grain. Radish butter had a subtle kick. As Kevin (continues to) put it, "I'm going to need a loaf of that bread."
Farfalle, aged cheddar, dry aged beef, shaved Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, peppercorn
The cheddar was extremely sharp. Aged beef was (understandably) salty. Grapefruit added a twist. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente. Interesting dish but flavors didn't meld together quite right - not balanced.
Branzino, burnt onion powder, bluefoot mushrooms, daikon, citrus purée, shishito dashi
This dish surprised me. The fish was bland at first (branzino often is), but once all the flavors came together it was phenomenal. Dashi (broth), which was poured over once served, had a kick from the shishito but wasn't overwhelming - perfect salt balance. Onion powder added smokiness. Citrus was subtle but added layer of tanginess.
Foie gras from Hudson valley, pine nut brittle, riesling jelly, lychee
Foie gras was frozen and shaved over the dish - flavorful and of course hit the stomach like a brick despite seeming light. Foie gras is just so rich. Many intricate flavors going on - fat from foie gras, sweetness from brittle, lychee and jelly. Fucking tasty, though unexpectedly so.
Muscovy duck, breast, sautéed ramps, chive creme fraiche, fermented lime chili Indian spice sauce
Plating was beautiful - all pieces separate except for the sauce (over the duck). Duck was dry aged, cooked medium rare, topped with crispy skin. Not too fatty, very flavorful and earthy. Sauce on its own was lacking - very fermented - but with duck made terrific pairing. Chive creme fraiche was the bomb.
Chocolate cake, mint ice cream, mint jelly, fernet branca
I don't like mint ice cream because it reminds me of toothpaste. This ice cream wasn't too minty on the first bite. As the flavors combined the dish grew on me and by the end I was scraping the plate clean. Fun presentation - chocolate cake was a super thin pat of chocolate topped with ice cream, mint jelly cubes and Fernet Branca (in the form of flavored wafers).
Coconut lime sorbet, rum meringue, frozen banana pellets, shortbread crumbs
Best way to end the meal. Meringue was served in small round, crunchy wafers and in small, toasted, intentionally undercooked tear drops. Coconut and lime are a match made in heaven - the sorbet was incredible. Shortbread crumbs were a combination of cooked and raw dough. Bananas were a smart addition. Light and satisfying dessert.
The meal lasted exactly two hours. The artistry, precision, and care that goes into every course is unlike anything I've experienced before. And you get to see it all happen in front of your eyes at the open-kitchen bar (though they've been talking about expanding into a larger location with table seating).
If you can snag a reservation and are willing to spend the money, do it.