In a faraway city, a Korean-American chef is changing the way restaurants work. David Chang is a top young restaurateur in New York, and the darling of the Eastern culinary sophisticates; in fact, he just won the James Beard Award for Best New York Chef. Of course, right there, that's enough to damn him as elitist in some circles. Let me tell you why he matters to Humboldt County.
Chang is one of the "Young Turk" chefs who are playing with the entire concept of dining. All three of his Manhattan restaurants include the name "Momofuku," which, no, is not a Japanese profanity, but a tribute to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of the Cup Noodle, less formally known as "ramen." Momofuku Noodle Bar, Chang's first restaurant, in Greenwich Village, became a favorite of younger diners because of its fresh flavors, low prices and air of culinary insouciance.
New York Magazine described it as "Japanese ramen by way of a Carolina whole-hog barbecue, with more than a soupçon of French technique, deriving its super-porky flavor as much from hot, fatty slabs of succulent Berkshire pork belly and deep-pink shredded shoulder as from the long-simmered stock (made from 70 pounds of chicken legs, roasted pork bones, ham hocks, and bacon)."
As a balance for the sumptuous noodle dishes, toppings are conspicuously fresh -- slivered snow peas and scallions, briefly sautéed al dente fresh corn, preserved bamboo shoots, delicate sheets of nori, with the theatrical addition of a slow-poached egg as the dish is presented. There are other specials, notably a tiny barbecued pork bun some writers have found reminiscent of White Castle hamburgers, arguably the best fast food since they were invented in the Great Depression.
Chang followed the noodle restaurant with a nearby location he called Momofuku Ssäm Bar, which at first sold only ssäm, a small "Korean burrito" consisting of a vegetable leaf filled with savory ingredients. Gradually, he used the venue as a way to expand his repertoire of earthy, Asian-accented dishes, including fried Brussels sprouts, three-terrine sandwich, spicy tripe, warm veal-head sausage. In an era that seemed to proliferate young vegans, his menu warned, "We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items."
Why am I telling you this?
The first reason is that this year, his long-awaited third restaurant, Momofuku Ko, opened in lower Manhattan. It instantly replaced Thomas Keller's Per Se as the hottest ticket in the U.S. In the course of all this, Chang has revolutionized the dining experience in a way not even the "food chemistry" chefs have done, both elevating the level of imagination, and making it less, rather than more, expensive.
The second reason is a follow-up to my column, "Why I Don't Eat Sushi in Humboldt County." I was surprised by the powerful reactions the piece evoked -- along with predictable letters of outrage, a number of chefs, cooks and sushi-enthusiasts took time to personally thank me.
That led me to consider that we are not such a backwater after all, that below the surface, Humboldt County has a resilient core of people who care deeply about food, people who would delight in learning about -- even eating at -- a cutting edge restaurant like Momofuku Ko.
David Chang is inspired by the kind of cooking practiced by highly creative sushi chefs I wrote about. Here, for instance, is a typical meal at the new restaurant:
First amuse bouche: chicharrón (fried pork rinds) seasoned with togarashi
Second amuse bouche: tiny bite-size housemade English muffins with rendered pork fat and shreds of spring onion
fluke sashimi, poppy seeds, chives, spicy buttermilk
kimchi consommé with Long Island oyster on a half shell and crispy pork belly
a coddled egg with soubise, sweet potato vinegar, hackleback caviar, potato chips, sprinkled with chervil
scallop with clams, trumpet mushroom puree, pickled fennel, nori and bacon dashi
shaved foie gras with Riesling jelly, lychee and pinenuts
deep fried poached short ribs with grilled scallion, pickled daikon and pickled mustard seeds
miso soup and rice ball, rolled in pork fat and grilled, with pickled turnips and cabbage
pineapple sorbet with shredded dried pineapple
deep fried apple pie, sour ice cream, toasted miso
Some explanations are in order. Amuse bouche is a small pre-meal appetizer (literally, "amuse the mouth"). Togarashi is a dry chile-orange rind spice mixture. Fluke is a North Atlantic flounder. Kimchi consommé is a clear broth made from fermented cabbage. Pork belly is the European cut of meat from which Americans make bacon. Coddled egg is gently boiled in the shell, until the white has just set but the yolk is still liquid. Soubise is a puree of caramelized onions. Hackleback is a North American sturgeon. Dashi is a basic Japanese stock. To shave foie gras, it is first formed into a cone, roasted, then flash frozen.
I did not eat this meal myself -- it was described to me by a culinary friend who lives in New York -- lovingly, with just a hint of condescension. I don't mind. To be honest, I'd hate to have kept a log of that multi-course dinner, because it would have distracted from the pleasure of eating it.
Here are some more things you need to know.
The price (according to my friend) was $85. For a "flight" of wine (many small glasses) to accompany the various dishes, add another $50.
I know, it sounds outrageous, doesn't it?
But by comparison, several upscale local restaurants are getting $35-and-up per entree. That means, if you add a starter and dessert, you are paying over $50 for a meal that is not 1/20th as fresh, as inventive, or as good.
By way of comparison, in San Francisco, the three-course menu at the highest-ranking restaurant, Michael Mina, is $98, and, trust me, it is a bargain for what you get (that said, I don't expect to eat there more than once in a decade).
In New York, the nine-course dinner at Per Se is $250, and having been privileged to eat Thomas Keller's food, I suspect it is not overpriced. But Per Se overlooks Central Park. It has not only the world's best food, but possibly the world's best wait service, and a cosmic view -- plus of course, the aura of a legendary chef.
Momofuku Ko goes in a different direction. It is in a modest location. The place settings are very simple: a folded napkin, a pair of chopsticks set on top of a cork. You sit at a bar made of a warm, blonde wood, looking at the kitchen. The stools, made of the same wood, are backless. Food is served by the cook who made it (tips are shared by all employees). This is itself a radical concept: Each diner's meal (no, you don't always get the same thing as your neighbor) prepared by a personal chef. Clearly the food -- not ambience, service, or luxury -- is central.
And while Chang is aware of the "food chemistry" techniques -- such as flaked foie gras -- he avoids those requiring virtuosity or expensive machines, which would add to costs, and thus prices. There's one other matter. Seating is limited to 12 places, and there is no way to get reservations except online, on a first-come, first-served basis, starting one week ahead. "No phone. No favorites. No exceptions," he says. "We wanted to keep the meal affordable, and we didn’t want to hire someone just to answer the phone."
You will have doubtless noted the prominence of pork on the Momofuku Ko menu. This is not an accident. The three Momofukus are a significant market presence, and have pretty much locked up the best pastured pork farm on the East Coast. Likewise, the buying power of three establishments means access to the best and freshest seafood. No single sushi restaurant could possibly have such clout. And while there is a pervasive influence of pork and fermented vegetables, daily-fresh seafood is equally critical to the menu.
Chang is proficient at sushi, Pacific Rim, classic European and soul food; he is also something of a philosopher. He sees his role as unifying a diverse world cookery, something for which the above meal might be an example, with Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Caribbean, French, English and American regional, often using ingredients from one tradition cooked in the style of another. He is in the forefront in the development of the new American cuisine, making eating out an exciting, affordable, adventure.
Might Humboldt County be up to that sort of challenge?