Last week I read in Time Magazine about one of the country's hottest chefs, David Chang, and his mini-empire of restaurants in Manhattan's Lower East Side. The thing that caught my attention in the article was that his food is not only incredibly inventive and borderline bizarro, but it is accessible to and borderline cheap. The problem of getting a table remains, but we arrived at Momofuku Ssam Bar at 11:28 am, just in time to beat the 11:30 am rush when they opened the doors on Saturday. And yes, the tiny place was full by 11:35 am.
After a truly kick-ass meal (I won't call it a brunch because there was nothing breakfasty about it) that included items like steamed buns with pork belly, a ham & chicken liver terrine sandwich, pork shoulder scrapple with egg, and a salad of . . . ready? thinly sliced beef tendon with pickled green mango and spicy peanut thai dressing. (The waitress sweetly pointed to her heel when explaining where the "tendon" comes from- thanks a bunch for the visual.)
After lunch we went to the adjacent/sister place- Momofuku Milk Bar- for dessert. We were boring and had a piece of brownie pie, but even this casual bakery/fast-food place has some crazy offerings like Chorizo Challah, and salty pistachio ice cream topped with potato chips. Around the corner and down a block is a third Momofuku location, Momofuku Noodle Bar, which is downscale but also extremely cool.
I know this is all rather boring to read about, but A) I need to keep writing and this is the most interesting thing I've done this week, B) I'm still amazed by the fact that we got a table at Ssam bar and also obsessing over the wacky food we ate, and C) this is all prelude to my stopping by the 4th location of the Momofuku empire, Momofuku Ko.
Momofuku Ko has a tiny street presence, is barely marked and has dark tinted windows covered by a heavy (but artsy) metal mesh. Thinking it closed, I literally pressed my nose to the door. What a DORK. Here are some fun facts about Momofuku Ko:
1. There are 12 seats. Total. Actually, they are backless stools. All at a bar. The restaurant is entirely visible here. And no waiters. Just the chefs.
2. Reservations are allotted only via the restaurant's website, only exactly one-week in advance, and are snapped up in literally a matter of seconds/minutes.
3. Although the other restaurants post reasonable approximations of their ever-evolving menus, Momofuku Ko's was shrouded in mystery (but I was able to find the general outline, here), begging for further inspection.
4. Opened just this year, Ko has a cult following.
After smashing my face against the metal exterior to get a glimpse inside, I could see people inside and opened the door. The conversation with the unexpectedly nice hostess went like this:
Me: "Hi, can I see a menu?"
Too-skinny-hostess: "I'm sorry, we don't publish a menu."
Me: "Well then, how do people order?" (I'm waaaaaay too smart, of course)
Too-skinny-hostess: "It's prix fixe."
Me: "Well, then, how much?"
Too-skinny-hostess: "$160 for lunch and $100 for dinner."
Me: [stunned silence]
Too-skinny-hostess: "We also offer wine pairings." (as in, that will cost you extra)
Me: "Why does lunch cost more than dinner?" (because normally a $160 lunch would translate into something like a $250 dinner, right?)
Too skinny hostess: "Lunch is 17 courses."
Me: [confused look on my face, walk out, still processing this conversation.]
So, wait, if I pay $160 for lunch, I get 17 courses, but at dinner I only pay $100, so do I only get 10 courses and walk away hungry? And how much is the wine? Turns out you have to shell out an additional $50, $85 or $150 for the privilege of getting a buzz on, during your $160 lunch. Which you are informed will take three hours. For lunch.