Love it or hate it, but the severe, online-only, robotic reservation system at Momofuku Ko is undeniably fair, allowing non-celebrities like me a chance to eat in NYC's most exclusive and desirable restaurant. Anyway, the system rewards obsessive and insomniac types, like my life partner, who happened to successfully check for that elusive green "available" mark in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago. I awoke the next day to find out she'd somehow scored very exciting and very expensive lunch plans for Friday afternoon.
Writing seriously and in-depth about such a lunch would not only quickly exhaust my arsenal of superlatives, but it would take longer than the truly, truly, truly beautiful and stunning meal took to eat--which was three hours of nearly non-stop munching.
Munching what? Well, from Taillevent in Paris to The French Laundry in Napa Valley to NYC's other vaunted food palaces (like Alain Ducasse, Daniel, Per Se, Jean Georges and Le Bernardin), I've been lucky enough to eat at several of the best restaurants in the Western world. Much of Ko's food was of that quality, only Pavement was playing in the background and I had on tennis shoes (OK, my nice suede ones, but still...). See, this place is utterly unique.
Here's how it worked: diners entered the bare-walled, 12-seater, L-shaped communal bar setup on a time-staggered basis (approx 15 minutes). We then sat right on top of the three chefs (one was artsy, burly, bearded and tattooed; another fastidious, horn-rimmed, and extremely intellectual; the third was poetic and so sensitive that when I pointed to his sublime "puffed egg" dish and asked "Chawanmushi?" his hurt expression of disappointment momentarily shamed me), watching them transfer outrageously high-grade ingredients into insanely luscious morsels they carefully plated with minimalist style and verve. Note: Ko has a strict no-photo policy, so here comes a tsunami of a text-heavy play-by-play:
1) Amuses that announced the range of food we'd be eating-- a Kushi oyster w/ a drop of sweet potato vinaigrette; a coin-sized, crispy biscuit w/ red-eye gravy and country ham; a sort of french fried potato shell filled w/ a piped-in sweet parsnip puree and caviar
2) Another delicate nibble: a little lime-y creme fraiche-filled crepe topped w/micro-chopped pears and red wine soaked shallots
3) Four pieces of some of the best sushi to ever cross my lips, each with a crunchy garnish--like masago and mackerel w/crystallized soy sauce, pickled beets and mustard oil; diver scallops and one (fluke?) with crinkly fried fish scales (!) that ate like flat sea salt
4) Another sublime "sushi" course--this one extravagant with ethereal, remarkably sweet Santa Barbara uni dressed with pickled red pepper facing off against a slice of Kobe beef with a miniature but concentrated mushroom dice-- that meat was more "beefily pleasurable" than many whole steaks I've eaten in fancy places
5) A tortellino made out of daikon filled with caramelized onion sitting in a clear, concentrated oxtail broth garnished with cilantro, delfino and bean sprouts
6) Pig-head cold cut (like hard lardo) with yuzu, mustard greens, cippolini onions, vinegar-y pink lady apple dice and crispy fried pig ear bits (!)
7) That absurdly wonderful, cloud-like puffed egg (dissolves into foam in the mouth) in Chang's famous bacon dashi with kombu, chive
8) A witty box-less bento: broccoli with housemade XO sauce; an extraordinary--and large-- porkstrap meatball (simultaneously delicate and hearty) in a thick and sweet tomato/bbq-y sauce (all hail the king of all meatballs!); sushi-like rice brilliantly crisped-up on one side in pork fat; and a chilled clam and cucumber soup
9) Incredible matsutake and bee pollen ravioli (rivaled the best ravioli I've had in Italy) topped with shaved raw matsutake in a rich sauce; served with a demitasse of intense matsutake mushroom tea sided wth a tiny piece of eggy, crispy "French toast"
10) A stunning piece of toasted almond-crusted skate (not one iota mushy, as skate is too ofter prone to be) braised in butter foam served with cerignola olive slivers, roasted cauliflower, water chestnuts and an almond foam that quickly melted in my mouth
11) Frozen Hudson Valley foie gras shaved like a big mound of ice atop lychee fruit and a reisling gelee--contrasted with a pinenut brittle...FREAKING GENIUS!!
12) Sensational squab study with a rare tenderloin cooked sous vide (resembled a lobe of foie (the meal constantly played with familiar dining tropes and diners' expectations from course to course) topped with a "granola" of chestnuts, fried squash and barley served beside a super crispy, wine-y leg plus grapes and an unusual tuber that was potato-y tasting and with a texture like a waterlogged radish.
13) Cheese course--an ingenious little sunflower rye "breadbox" dusted with crushed macademia nuts and filled with melty, mighty Camembert cut by huckleberries
14) First dessert-- aromatic sancho ice cream, vanilla wafer, thick and tangy plum compote and bayleaf powder that effervesced off my tongue, resolving all previous flavors playing there into a sort of refreshing whiff of menthol
15) Cold, thick quenelle of milk chocolate pudding (quite like ice cream) with tiny rice balls--the effect was of eating a reconstituted Nestle's crunch
There' so much more to say about this once-in-a-lifetime "did that really happen?" shockingly delicious meal, but you'll have to ask me in person.
After that masterful Ko meal, we walked 60 or so blocks, stunned, giddy as little children, drunk on the experience (and not booze for a change) until we came to the Whitney where the day of genius continued. There we saw the remarkable yet sadly neglected art of Paul Thek. Back in the '60s, Thek started enclosing slabs of (latex) flesh in transparent boxes--much like what made Damien Hirst famous over the last decades. But unlike Hirst, Thek didn't care about commerce and continued to evolve dramatically, making bizarre but wildly compelling, brave and pioneering structural pieces/installations (like "Dwarf Parade Table"), life-size self-sculptures, videos and beautiful paintings, eventually pissing off all his friends with his restless world travel and uncompromising personality. He died penniless, with his old friend Susan Sontag (who forgave him at the end) reading Rilke's chillingly beautiful Duino Elegies over his deathbed.
Later that night, we saw the excellent Time Stands Still on Broadway starring great actors like Laura Linney, Eric Bogosian and Christina Ricci
After all that, there was only one way to balance out a day filled with such intense experiences and wonderment--and it came at this fun West Village dive...
...in the form of kickass--and damn cheap!!!--burgers ($6.75), fries (2.50) and McSorley's beers (also $2.50).
Then we went to our hotel in Soho and slept like babies.