Recently, I came across a New York Times article about David Chang focusing on how the strength of his Momofuku empire lies in his willingness to let the chef running each of the restaurants with a distinct concept. I thought the article was quite on point regarding what makes Mr. Chang, despite my personal reservations at some of his restaurants, such an influential figure in the culinary world. Among the now vast portfolio of his restaurants, Momofuku Ko probably sits at the pinnacle in terms of the quality of food. While I stopped short of awarding 9.0 KenScale to the restaurant on my visit nearly three years ago, I still appreciated the range of creativity that the kitchen was displaying (see my review of Ko in 2015 here: https://kenscale.com/2015/12/05/momofuku-ko/). When Ko decided to open a bar kitchen separately from the main dining space earlier this year, it was an entirely different proposition from Ko’s rigorously structured tasting menu that now run $255 per person. The food at the bar kitchen is intended to reduce the pressure (in terms of time, money, etc.) typically associated with a full tasting menu experience; everything is a la carte, with the menu sketched on a notebook on a daily basis. Certain big-name fine dining restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin have already opened a more casual version next to the main dining room. Could this be the next big thing? On a recent visit with my wife Jun, we both appreciated the experimental spirit of the kitchen, but felt the execution was pretty uneven.
The central concept at Ko’s bar kitchen, according to the restaurant’s website, is to “create a space both for tasting menu research and development as well as a playground for our chefs to cook and serve what they love to eat”. When I told her about what the kitchen is trying to do here, Jun was perplexed and mildly offended at the same time: “Wait, are we then lab rats for their food?” Well, I wouldn’t mind as long as the food is good, I responded. Unfortunately, a few starters we ordered did not inspire a lot of confidence. Sourdough crepe was warm and soft, but it was a little too oily, and it was hard to find anything special about pickle sandwich. I had very high expectations about the cold fried chicken that everyone who has visited the bar for dining. The chicken is battered and fried multiple times before being served at cold temperature. We were both disappointed to find that the chicken (at $7 per piece) was not only not very crispy but had too much dough on the outside to truly enjoy the chicken’s flesh.
Jun and I disagreed on our view regarding the striped bass belly. I thought the fish, which was capably cooked, worked surprisingly well with the skin coated in blue berry based sauce, while Jun argued that the blue berry has no place for a savory dish like this. We both agreed, however, that the dry aged striploin was underwhelming, with the meat’s texture not particularly interesting. With a $31 price tag, Jun thought we could just add $20 more to have a better steak dish at a steakhouse. The side of rice with nori and smoked duck (there is actually no duck meat, it is just ground powder made of duck) was a decent dish but not enough to change our overall opinion of the food at the restaurant. For dessert, Japanese cheese cake had a delightfully smooth texture, especially more so with the addition of maple syrup on top, but I wouldn’t put it under the “Dessert of the Year” considerations.
Ko’s bar doesn’t accept reservations. When we showed up on the early side of Saturday evening, we were initially quoted a 45-minute wait, only to get seated two minutes after we were ready to order drinks at the standing area in the center. The cocktail drinks and wine list at the bar seem well thought-out as would be expected of a restaurant of Ko’s caliber, although I wasn’t sure if I was ready to commit to the red wine of the day (the menu notebook also has daily changing offerings of wines by the glass) that was whopping $80 by the glass. The bar space was pretty sleek and modern, and I think it will really work great if you want to have a casual date with a few drinks and some small dishes to nibble on instead of committing to a full meal. As with all my experiences at Momofuku establishments, not all places have won me over and some places have more misses than hits. Unfortunately, Ko’s bar dining experience was one of those cases where I can understand why critics are so excited about what is happening at the kitchen but Jun and I couldn’t buy into the flawed execution. Maybe Ko will decide not to include these dishes we sampled for the regular tasting menu experience.
KenScale: 7.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.25/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 7.0/10
- Ingredients: 7.5/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 7.0/10
- Value: 7.0/10
Address: 8 Extra Place, New York, NY 10003
Telephone: (212) 203-8095