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Eaters’ Journal 10/1/16: Momofuku Ko, Blue Hill, Aska, King, and More

Field notes from Eater editors about recent meals around New York City

Momofuku Ko: After a few months of relative austerity, in the last week I've had the dining habits of a gout-ridden dauphin with a death wish. I don't know if I even want to admit how many tasting menus I subjected myself to — all that butter and wine blurs together into a frothy haze, anyway, except for a Saturday afternoon lunch at Momofuku Ko which sliced through all of it with glittering clarity.

The last time I ate there, right after it reopened in late 2014, my meal was mostly fun and delicious, but there were too many seams showing — I remember loving the dramatic visual of a cook blazing raw mackerel with a Searzall, for example, and then getting hit with the butane stink of the torch's afterburn, which scorched out my tastebuds for a half an hour. This time, there were no misfires. I especially loved the three amuses that kicked off the meal, all brainy-goofy reconfigurations of stoner food, including a crisp pomme souffle filled with scallions and cream, and a single chicken oyster, breaded and fried, God's own chicken nugget. The rest of the meal ran smooth as greased rails, too. It was three hours of nonstop hits — everything from tsukemono-style pickles, to that famous soft-boiled egg elegantly vomiting a quenelle of caviar, to maple-dotted cheesecake topped with shaved black truffles, to a course of thin slices of barely-seared beef that was so velvety and funk-laced that I actually moaned with pleasure, which was frankly embarrassing for everyone — with a wine pairing to match. — Helen Rosner

Auntie Guan’s Kitchen 108: Last weekend I took a slew of Baltimore pals to Auntie Guan’s, which opened earlier this year near Union Square. We found it hopping with excited diners on a Saturday night. The menu prominently specializes in the cuisine of Dongbei, most northeastern of Chinese regions, formerly known as Manchuria. It used to be that you had to go to Flushing to get this type of food. Highlights of our meal included a salad of clear mung bean noodles (known as "sheet jelly") tossed with kelp and cucumbers in a light wasabi dressing, supremely tasty sliced lamb with cumin and chile oil, and a cryptic dish called "chicken bones," which turned out to be just that: bones from which most of the flesh had been removed, coated with crumbs and fried like fried chicken with a dusting of dried chiles, a paradise for gnawers. — Robert Sietsema

Cosme: Whenever our roving restaurant editor Bill Addison comes to town, he asks where he should be eating for his National 38 research. Much like our NY 38, the national list highlights "essential" restaurants across the country. So maybe not the hottest, maybe not the most refined or most expensive, but the restaurants that define dining in America right now. We want high end, low end, and a mix of cuisines, regions, and flavors. Last time I suggested he go to Cosme he had a terrible time. An off night. But we went back this week for lunch to try again. I won't speak for Bill but I loved it. The number of dishes with avocado as a main ingredient makes me think they're pandering a bit to the fashionable crowd they attract, but that's more amusing than a critique. Everything was delicious, from the famed uni tostada (with avocado) and much Instagrammed corn husk merengue to the new-to-me raw fish with avocado and finger limes, insanely satisfying egg sope, and the duck enmoladas. Bonus: they had us in and out in exactly an hour. — Amanda Kludt

Aska: The least interesting thing I ate a Aska was a perfectly rare sliver of 120-day dry-aged ribeye steak. It had a profoundly developed muskiness from the long aging process, and flesh that was firm but lithe, and rosy from edge to edge. It is the sort of meat that sends me in to rapturous fits, the sort of meat I have spent my career advocating for. Yet here in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, ensconced in a room that despite its austerity and skew toward darker tones has an unexpected level of intimacy. I find myself intrigued by the oddly satisfying crunch of fried lichen (served with caramelized cream and delicate slivers of chanterelle) or the burst of sunshine that was in every bite of the last of the summer peas (with scallops and a dollop of grilled roe) — more so even than over a world class cut of beef.

Frederik Berselius’s Aska 2.0 is surely the city’s most thoughtful and demanding tasting menu. You might not love everything, I certainly didn’t, but I appreciated the craft and the imagination and marveled at the chef's mastery over transformation. Single bites will change in texture and flavor two or three times over. The lamb heart, for example, is a charred powder that engulfs a layer of pickled sunchokes — it changes from a dust to a paste before becoming creamy as it dissipates completely. Acridity yielding to minerality.

It's not just that the menu itself unfolds in a deliberate yet unexpected manner, it's that the dishes themselves have arcs. Above all, this is deeply nuanced food. It is also a time commitment, and while I am glad I tried the long form version of the menu on my first visit, the short form option the chef began offering earlier this month will get me back there sooner rather than later. — Nick Solares

King: I fell for King as soon as I heard it was a restaurant named after a male ruler but run by three ambitious women: general manager Annie Shi and chefs Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbol. And then I went, and now I can't stop thinking about it. The meal starts with a carta di musica, that paper-thin Italian cracker bread drizzled with olive oil and fried herbs. There's nothing new or exciting about the malfatti — ricotta gnocchi tossed in butter, Parmesan, and sage — but it's executed with such casual precision it will stop the otherwise engrossing conversation at your table. Don't miss the fennel, which is an equally simple combination of fresh, flavorful ingredients that transcend their individual elements; you and your dinner companion may just fight over the last bite. The guinea hen for two is as tender as the chickens at Le Coq Rico, though I'd wish the skin had been more crisp. Save room for dessert: a slice of chocolate tart comes with a dollop of creme fraiche and an almond-plum tart tastes of browned butter and the first few wisps of autumn. I seriously need to move Downtown. — Daniela Galarza

Blue Hill at Stone Bars: Blue Hill has long been my one of my favorite special occasion restaurants. The length of the meal is punishing (we left after five and a half hours), and it's hard to sleep well after consuming this much food in one sitting. That said, this meal always merits the time and energy. Anyone who's been knows about the procession of vegetables, the wonderful service, the treatment of meat as a component instead of the main star in most dishes. They know of the little chocolate and liver sandwiches, of the visit to the manure shed. Novel to me this time was the new bakery room where Dan Barber showed off the breads he's making from the latest grains created just for him. And a spiel (in said manure shed) about potato strains they are growing for flavor instead of fry-ability or transportability. And colostrum ice cream (surreal to eat as a new mom) surrounded by a flurry of toppings. I'm big on value, so I also appreciated that when we asked the sommelier for a bottle of aromatic white and didn't confirm the price, he ended up choosing something spectacular for just $65. And they sent us home with chocolate bread. — Amanda Kludt

Roberto’s Restaurant: Turn the clock back to 2000 and one of the city’s most celebrated Italian restaurants was Roberto’s, helmed by chef Roberto Paciullo. It was located in a charming building that looked like it came from a small village in Central Italy, with a wooden bar and candlelit dining room, and waiters in uniform who huddled at the side of the dining room when not running back and forth. This was Italian food with a difference — in fact, it was the first place in the Bronx’s Belmont (sometimes known as Arthur Avenue) to serve the kind of food you recall from your Italian vacation, rather than the red-sauced Italian-American stuff.

After a hike through the New York Botanical Garden, a mile north, and a traipse across the campus of Fordham University, a friend and I paid a return visit to the restaurant after a decade or more. The food was as good as ever, including an app of braised octopus and beans that included more of the seagoing grasper than just the tentacles. Forgetting that the servings are humongous, we ordered a primo and secondo. The first was a plate of cavatelli with cauliflower that fell short of our expectations ("This tastes too much like soup," my companion muttered), and the second a massive platter of grilled rabbit, an entire half specimen, served in a light gravy with potatoes. It was as delicious as we’d remembered it. — Robert Sietsema

Marlow & Sons: My wonderful friends Brian and Emily got married over the weekend and had the good taste to host their rehearsal dinner at Marlow and Sons. I’d (shamefully) never been to this Eater 38 spot, and now I’m positive that lots of friends, lots of food, and lots of drinks is a fantastic way to experience the restaurant. The meal started with a truly delightful, briney raw oyster. (At one point, I loudly food editor-splained to the groom’s brother, who had never eaten a raw oyster before and seemed to be avoiding the salty liquid around the meat — "YOU GOTTA DRINK IT!" Sorry man, you needed to know.) The appetizer portion with burrata and corn and more was hefty and fresh, and I thankfully still somehow had room for an extremely tender and flavorful beef short rib in the entree portion, a dish reminiscent of a homey roast that I imagine I would have eaten if my parents were white. Perhaps the only downside of the place was how loud it was. Half the table was convinced that there was chicken in a dish, but as we ate, I realized that the server must have said "chicken of the woods mushroom" and we just didn’t hear her properly. Still, overall, what a blessing it is to have friends who wouldn’t dare shame the memory of their nuptials with bad food! Other couples should take note. — Serena Dai

Cascabel Taqueria: Before Alex Stupak came around and started to mess around with boundaries (and prices) for middle-end Mexican fare at Taqueria and Pastor, many of us procured our non-exorbitant (but non-cheap) tacos at venues like Toloache in the Theater District or Cascabel on the Upper East Side. I wouldn't say Cascabel, based on a recent visit, is necessarily putting out Toloache-quality fare, but it's all tasty enough – tacos are overweighted in the American style (come on guys these aren't burritos), and the "diablo" hot sauce isn't too much spicier than anything you'd find in the chips section of your local supermarket (though the green peppers accompanying the tacos are nuclear powered).

Food comes out quickly. When I ordered two carnitas and two chorizo tacos everything magically appeared no more than two minutes later – can you even assemble them that fast?. Flat screen televisions showing professional sports cover the walls, so this is my kind of place (no cable at Chez Sutton), but it's a touch odd that the kitchen closed before the conclusion of Thursday Night Football's halftime report, with the bar shutting down not too much later. Is this a product of how early folks go to bed on the Upper East Side? Maybe. Or perhaps it's more realistic to just speak the larger truth: football is on too late for must of us to watch anyway. I'll be back when I'm in the neighborhood, a touch earlier, however. — Ryan Sutton

Gabriel Kreuther: A close friend and I had no trouble making last minute reservations at Gabriel Kreuther recently. Though the meal was presented with all of the grace I'd except from a fine dining restaurant, the whole experience felt staid. I remember liking the taste of everything I ate, but I can't remember the particulars of any single individual dish. There was a good raw fish appetizer? There was a really superb pork loin. I know we had dessert but I can't remember what it was. All I can remember is how empty the dining room looked on a Thursday night. It's unfortunate when a chef with so much talent ends up cooking in a space with so little soul.  Daniela Galarza

Keens: I had lunch twice at Keens this week (not something I can normally say). It is perhaps my favorite Midtown sit-down lunch spot, equally perfect as a cool and dark oasis during a heatwave as it is a warm and homey escape during a blizzard. Lunch one was my go-to: wedge salad with bacon and tomatoes. It's indulgent because of the blue cheese but doesn't feel too transgressive because it's mostly watery lettuce. Lunch two was the sirloin steak salad, which is good but really not the move in retrospect. The way to do things right at Keens I've learned is do the wedge or go all in with a burger or pub sized mutton chops or (if it's dinner, god bless) the full-on steak for two or prime rib. — Amanda Kludt

Joe Allen: I paid a visit to Joe Allen last week in the hopes of finding a burger worth reviewing for my burger column. I am still looking for a burger worth reviewing for my burger column. — Nick Solares

St. Anselm: This is exactly the food I want to be eating all the damn time​; simple, ​flavorful, ​stupid ​delicious​. I loved everything here from the NY steak I had to sadly share, to the veggie sides like cauliflower, long beans, and artichoke. I​ a​m thinking about​ my​ strip steak​ ​au ​p​oivre​ right now​ as I try to remember why it took me so long to get here. Don't sleep on the dessert, especially if it's seasonal. — Patty Diez

Roberta’s: You know what's still really good? Roberta's Bee Sting pizza. You know what's suffering though? Roberta's salted caramel sticky buns. The last time I popped in for one they were under-proofed and over-baked and lacked the proper amount of that gooey sticky toffee that makes them so good. Thank god the pizza is still absolute perfection. There's been a lot of news about changes in Roberta's staffing and ownership and management lately, and though it worries me I hope nothing comes in to steal the magic about this place. Roberta's forever. — Daniela Galarza

Hometown Bar-B-Que: I went to Billy Durney’s Hometown Barbecue on a Monday night, ate hamburgers, pizza, and chicken tikka marsala, and it proved to me that it is unquestionably New York City’s greatest barbecue restaurant. Hometown is of course closed on Monday nights and the food was mostly prepared by other local restaurants. None of it was actual barbecue. But at Hometown I found the soul of NYC barbecue because on that night Durney held a benefit for the family of Hometown employee Gary Dovey who died tragically at 57. It seemed that the entire citizenry of Red Hook turned out in support. The sense of family and community was visceral. Hometown felt like the center of village life. Like barbecue restaurants in the South often feel. This is the barbecue as culture, and we have it in earnest now in NYC. — Nick Solares

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Top photo: Momofuku Ko by Daniel Krieger

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