When seeking culinary inspiration back in the mid-aughts, I'd often ride the polished escalators up to the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center and peruse the daily menus at Per Se, ogling dishes that lucky guests would enjoy in the cushy, coddled, quiet dining room. The preparation that fascinated me most of all was a 48-hour brisket; I’d heard Thomas Keller was doing cool things with sous-vide cookery, creating the possibility of magical medium-rare braises, imparting fascinating color and textural contrasts to cuts that should've come out uniformly brown. How did the meat taste? Couldn’t tell you. The $210, service-included price (before supplements), was too high for this young writer. So it wasn't until a few years later that I got my fix, not at Per Se but at David Chang’s $85 Momofuku Ko, where a high-tech water bath treatment left my short ribs gorgeously pink. There were no supplements at Ko. There was also no coddling. The setting was a cramped East Village counter. The first course was a pork rind. And the entertainment was listening to chefs drop f-bombs as they sent the last course – McDonald’s-style apple pies – into the deep fryer. It was all very punk rock.
The setting was all enough to let you know you weren't meditating in the prayer room at Masa. Ko, which Chang opened in his old Noodle Bar space in 2008, was an unambiguous birdie flip to the expense account pomp of haute gastronomy. The twelve-seat restaurant exposed many of us to ideas and techniques we might not have otherwise encountered due to the high prices, formal dress codes, and treacherous carpeting of more regal abodes.
The original Ko was effectively a Broadway show packing the approachability of community theater. It paved the way for cheaper, experimental neo-bistros like Semilla and Contra; it also foreshadowed a crop of pricier 15-30 course chef’s counter spots like Brooklyn Fare and Blanca.
Thing is, virtually all of those new venues were larger and more comfortable than Ko. Maybe it was time for this little rebel of a restaurant to grow up? One can only play human Tetris while heading to the restroom so many times. So last November, Chang moved his flagship tasting spot to a 23-seat counter space just off The Bowery, a neighborhood that, in its present incarnation, is the precise opposite of punk rock; Ko’s neighbors are an art gallery and an apartment complex where studios start at $3,600/month. And with the new location came a $50 price hike, pushing the dinner menu to $175, which is what Ko used to charge for its extended lunch service. Momofuku raised the course count as well, bringing it up to around 18 servings.
Instead of the old chicharron amuse, chef Sean Gray hands you two crispy pommes soufflés filled with caramelized onion puree. Fancy, right? Then you take a bite, and you realize it’s just a high-end potato chip with the dip piped inside, a Super Bowl party snack in its most refined form. The preparation is a heartwarming sign that Ko, having turned itself into one of New York's most compelling tasting menu venues, has not repudiated its accessible, approachable roots.
Ko, one of New York's most compelling tasting menu venues, did not repudiate its accessible, approachable roots.
One of the sous chefs hands you a kabocha squash tartlet. The hors d’oeuvre disappears after a single bite, but the earthy sugars linger on for a good ten seconds afterward. Later comes a pile of soft ricotta cavatelli with nettle puree, an herbaceous mess of spring amped up further by the sting of grated horseradish. Will these dishes remain on the menu in a week or two? Perhaps. But it's harder to say that they'll remain in a month or two. And that’s why it’s worth applauding the reservations policy at Ko; bookings are only accepted fifteen days out, favoring locals over destination diners. Accessibility, as it turns out, manifests itself in forms that extend beyond menu prices.
Part of that accessibility narrative lies with comfort and convenience. Ko's bar stools now have backs. The chefs are quiet and focused. Wine stems are light-as-air Zaltos. Neither good osetra caviar, nor foie gras, commands a supplemental charge. And non-flash photography is finallly permitted, which is crucial for a restaurant that doesn’t post its menus online. Instagram and Flickr, for better or for worse, are how many of us learn about new dishes at any given venue, and I’d argue that Ko’s old picture ban inadvertently kept the establishment outside of our regular culinary conversations.
How can one not get excited about the countless photos of Ko’s uni with chickpea hozon puree, two gradations of the color orange, juxtaposed? Let the urchin roll around in your mouth; the preternaturally firm papillae of this Hokkaido breed evokes the pleasant sensation of being licked by a puppy. If the essence of the sea overwhelms the palate, take a bite of the hozon, a savory, vaguely coarse, miso-like delicacy that readies you for more uni.
The food at Ko has evolved along with the space. Chang, who partly rose to fame on the success of his pork buns, oversaw a swine-forward menu during Ko’s early days in 2008; I remember scallops with bacon puree, lard-slicked English muffins, pork belly in kimchi broth, and pork fat grilled rice. The new menu is subtler, forcing diners to close their eyes to comprehend some of the flavors. In fact, I can’t recall a single discernible pig product during any of my three review visits, during which chef Gray sent out a virtual hailstorm of flawless seafood.
Here’s your edible tidal pool: raw madai, shiso mist, and a gelee of fish head consommé that dissolves into an oily bliss. Pressed and seared mackerel sushi kicks up the maritime fat meter even higher, then the chefs bring things back down to neutral levels with a restorative soup of the fish’s bones.
The meal crescendos with a slab of Elysian Fields lamb, coated in pickled onion blossoms, nori power, and chili oil. The fatty, funky, grassy, spicy, meat is, without question, one of the country's great red meat dishes.
As for dessert, I could tell you about the lovely carrot and cardamom ice cream with meringue (essentially, a creamsicle), or the chocolate cookie with fernet gel (a Girl Scout Thin Mint), but you likely just want to know if the shaved foie gras with riesling gelée is still here. It is, and it’s still sublime, with the snowy petals of liver reconstituting themselves into a soft pink cream on your spoon, in your mouth.
Do I miss the higher energy, the stronger flavors, and the lower prices of the old Ko? Part of me does. But the better part of me is happy that Gray and his team have transformed this gem of the Momofuku empire into a smarter, more nuanced, more comfortable place to eat. Just as you can’t blame your smart, funny buddy for chilling out a bit after she gets into Harvard, we shouldn't judge Ko for getting a shave, cleaning itself up, and growing up to become one of New York's best restaurants.
Cost: Dinner is $175, wine pairings at $155.
Sample dishes: Uni with chickpea hozon, pressed mackerel sushi, Elysian Fields lamb with chile oil and pickled onion blossoms, shaved foie gras with riesling gelee.
Bonus tip: Best way to get reservations is by checking for cancellations in the off-hours. Also check the Reserve app, which auctions off two Saturday night seats at a markup for charity.