Don't drop the guillotine in the opening paragraph of a review," one of my former editors once said to me. The idea, he explained, was not to take away the reader's incentive to read my critical assessment all the way through to the end. He wouldn't mind, for example, if I opened a review by stating that David Chang, the F-bomb-dropping chef and television personality, welcomed New Yorkers to the era of hour-long waits for 25-minute dinners with the opening of Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004. But he might take issue with me saying, right off the bat in the first paragraph, that Chang's latest endeavor, Nishi, is not a good restaurant. Not yet at least.
I disagree with my erstwhile editor's strategy for many reasons, chief among them that now, in the era of Yelp and Foursquare, the people who read formal restaurant criticism are looking for a lot more than just the answer to a basic binary question: "Should I go, or not?" We read reviews to contemplate value: Is it worth my time and attention to pay $100 for a fancy Danish dinner in Williamsburg? We read reviews for vicarious experience: What is it like to snag a seat at a pizzeria that only doles out tickets via email once a month? We read reviews for context on the larger culinary world: Is fine dining broadening its appeal by taking inspiration from street snacks, or simply putting itself further out of touch by charging top dollar for things that used to be cheap?
So, a restaurant review isn't just a restaurant review. It's a referendum on money, identity, and culture.
Nishi, which opened in January, is not a good restaurant, but it's not a bad one. The Asian-Italian menu is a welcome reprieve from the city's ubiquitous onslaught of new-American and Euro joints. Take the spicy squid chitarra: It's a decadent calamari three-way (raw, dried, grilled) that wows as much with its funky XO sauce as it does with its classically firm noodles — an easy contender for cephalopod pasta of the year. Just one hitch: my enjoyment of the dish was heavily checked (if not entirely negated), by a whole host of other things.
I did not express these opinions, good or bad, in the food-centric fact-check email I sent a few weeks ago to Momofuku HQ ("Where do you source your baerii caviar from?" and that sort of thing). What came back, however, was an uncanny anticipation of my concerns: "We recognize that there is a lot to be done both from a kitchen and guest perspective to catch up with style of service and current menu," read a line in the reply. Or as Chang himself said to me in a phone conversation shortly thereafter, he wishes Nishi were better, "but it's not and it bothers me."
Though perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning.
Hundreds of new restaurants open in New York every year, and it's impossible for any responsible critic to get to all of them. To narrow the list, I look for stories that speak to the state of dining in the city right now. Sometimes those stories are obvious (l'll cover a buzzy new venue like Quality Eats to see if justifies the epic waits for walk-ins) and sometimes these stories are less obvious (I'll reexamine Brooklyn Fare because it's transformed itself from a BYO tasting table into one of the city's priciest experiences).
Nishi falls into the former category. David Chang's restaurants get plenty of attention from the press, and there's a reason for that: the 38-year-old is one of the most influential chefs of his generation. He's responsible for transforming the humble Taiwanese steamed bun into an object of universal hipster desire at Noodle Bar, and he's trying to do the same with the spicy fried chicken sandwich at Fuku. He helped popularize, at Ssam Bar, the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of serving upscale share plates in stripped-down environments for a few dollars less than elsewhere.
Italian-inspired dishes fortified with Asian ingredients is a model New York has seen before, but Chang is pushing the envelope a bit harder here.
With Nishi, a pasta and raw fish hangout on Eighth Avenue, the Momofuku trajectory gets even more interesting. It's the company's first new, full-service New York restaurant in five years, and it's espousing a style of multi-cultural mashup that's new to the restaurant group. Italian-inspired dishes fortified with Asian ingredients is a model New York has seen before, at venues like All'Onda and Basta Pasta, but Chang is pushing the envelope a bit harder here. His kitchen replaces the anchovy in bagna cauda with fish sauce, for example, and the butter with walnut puree, and the result is pretty rad, the loose, funky crumble of the nuts evoking the coarse texture and umami of parmesan.
Nishi is also the first Momofuku restaurant to adopt a no-tipping policy, which means prices are a bit higher to reflect the overhead cost of paying both cooks and servers a higher, more fair wage. If gratuity-free dining works here, it's likely Chang will adopt the policy throughout his empire, which in turn could spill over to other restaurant groups. In short, there is a heck of a lot riding on this place.
I visited Nishi five times. My first experience was an impromptu late-night meal after working up an appetite at my gym, a few blocks away. Even at 10:30pm, the place was packed, with a few familiar faces in the house. (Hey there, Kate Krader!) Like any professional follower of restaurants, I'd seen the slideshows of Nishi's interior — there's a whimsical painting of a woman in a bathing suit riding what appears to be a post-nuclear apocalypse monster bicycle — but still, I was surprised by how spare the room felt in person, boasting none of the modest comforts that Chang has been leaning towards lately, at Ko and elsewhere.
Blond wood bar stools, like the much-maligned ones at Noodle Bar, have flat seats with no backs or cushioning, and many of them, rather than overlooking the restaurant, give their occupants a direct view of a wall. The bright glare of the kitchen spills out into the dining room, contrasting with the dim light of the front-of-house. This is a barely tolerable scenario even by fast food standards (even McDonald's has seats with backs), and yet Nishi is among the most culinarily ambitious and sophisticated in Chang's empire.
Discomfort and cacophony make for a poor environment in which to contemplate the subtleties of a $26 beef crudo.
Joshua Pinsky, formerly of Ko, is the chef de cuisine. He riffs on cacio e pepe — a Roman dish that combines pasta, pecorino, and pepper — with something he calls ceci e pepe ("chickpeas and pepper"), taking out the traditional cheese and subbing in a proprietary chickpea miso substitute that Chang has dubbed "hozon." Texturally, it's exactly like the traditional dish, packing a silky, creamy mouthfeel. But the hozon replaces the gorgeously stinky overtones of pecorino with a marked sweetness, one that the warming pepper more or less manages to keep in check. (A little finishing salt, provided upon request, helps even more). It's a dessert pretending to be a savory pasta, and it's absolutely majestic.
It's the type of mind-bending creation that reminds me of some of my international encounters with Italian food, from llama-meat stuffed lasagna in the Bolivian salt flats to pizzas topped with mayonnaise (instead of mozzarella) on the outskirts of Moscow. What makes Nishi so exciting is that Pinsky is forcing New Yorkers to look beyond the framework of regional Roman or Sicilian traditions (or American red sauce affairs), and to meditate upon the fact that Italian food can be just as compelling when it's completely (and sometimes unrecognizably) interpreted through the eyes of another culture or chef. Nishi's food rebels against the shackles of authenticity.
But then the check came, and my nascently forming plans to write about the restaurant in the context of the globalized Italian pantry, or maybe Momofuku's evolution as a restaurant group, went flying out the window.
I was dining solo, and my meal of three dishes and three drinks ended up costing me $124. Sure, that's perhaps one more cocktail than the average dinner order, and yes, a zero-gratuity check is always going to be higher than one without. But still, instead of seeing the inconveniences and unpleasantness of the dining room reflected in a lower cost on my bill, I was paying close to fine-dining prices for the opportunity to sit on a seriously uncomfortable stool for the time it took to eat three courses and linger over a drink, and stare at a wall.
I was surprised by how spare the room felt in person, boasting none of the modest comforts that Chang has been leaning towards lately.
On another night, I again showed up as a walk-in (most of Nishi's seats are unreserved; limited online bookings are snapped up weeks in advance), and the host quoted a 40 minute wait — at 10 p.m. Not a problem, I can't criticize a restaurant for being popular, so I told her I'd just wait around inside. "Actually, we have a few parties coming in," she said. "So we'll text you when your seat is ready." I was sent back outside, into the 17-degree weather. That really is a heck of a thing: a mostly-walk in restaurant asking its patrons to pay top dollar, without even offering them a place to sit (or even stand) while they wait.
Unsurprisingly, the same thing plays out during prime time. I dropped by a little after eight on a Saturday; my companions and I were seated around 9:40. The wait I could handle. What I couldn't handle were the acoustics. With all the hard wood surfaces, the noise level at peak capacity is overwhelming, an auditory version of a shiatsu massage that never stops.
Throughout all of this, service, under the auspices of general manager Sara Jimenez, is impeccable, and Pinsky's food consistently delivers. But discomfort and cacophony make for a poor environment in which to contemplate the subtleties of a $26 beef crudo (known elsewhere as a carpaccio) with shaved watermelon radish and dashi ponzu, or the $75 version of that hozon-laced ceci i pepe that's laced with black truffles (sadly shaved in the kitchen, not tableside).
When the noise levels are that high, you stop talking to your companions because you're tired of asking, "What did you say?" You stop noticing the complex earthiness of the tartufi, because your other senses are overstimulated. You stop caring about how there's no bread service to mop up the scraps of your fantastic tofu-topped, Sichuan peppercorn-spiked beef shank bolognese. Instead, you're just thinking: When can we leave?
Restaurants are different places night to night, even table to table. A new restaurant is often an even more variable affair, rough around the edges, like seeing an off-Broadway play in previews. Each table gets a different bespoke performance from a different waiter, sometimes different dishes served by what are sometimes different chefs. That's why critics visit more than once, and why we usually wait a while for a restaurant to find its groove. It's also why restaurants soft-open: a few days or weeks of dress rehearsals at a limited price (or, sometimes, a full comp), to work out the kinks before officially opening to a full-price-paying public.
Nishi isn't just charging full price, it's charging full price plus, participating in the noble experiment of selling a skeptical dining public on higher numbers on menus in exchange for a better quality of life for restaurant workers. And while the charcoal-grilled mackerel (which you should definitely order) is now, at $31, five dollars cheaper than it used to be, the team at Nishi has raised many of the other prices along the way. The ceci e pepi cost a dollar more than it used to, at $24; the penicillin cocktail, once $15, is now $17; and a dish of clams Grand Lisboa, once $27, is now $32. And then there's Chang's Instagram, showing off the $140 double order of truffled ceci i pepe.
It was perhaps one of the most lucid criticisms I've read of any a restaurant, and it was coming from the restaurant itself.
Quite a few restaurants operate worldwide under the Momofuku aegis — sixteen by my last count — and so I scheduled my review of Nishi to run about two months after the doors opened to the public. That's a little earlier than I might for a lower-profile restaurant from a smaller operation, one which might reasonably be expected to take more time finding its sea legs. And once I'd finished my official review visits not long ago, I sent over my fact-check email.
Some version of that fact-check email goes out to every restaurant I review, to ensure that I don't inadvertently get anything wrong. In almost all of these notes, in addition to my basic culinary inquiries, is a variant on this question: How do you feel about the progress of the restaurant so far, and are there any major changes I should expect? Among other things, I want to make sure I'm reviewing a venue that's not going to completely change its menu in the weeks that follow my writeup, obviating its usefulness to my readers. (Buy me a few shots of Jameson and I'll tell you how I reacted when Corton closed just a few months after my four-star review.)
Many establishments answer that question with a variation on something anodyne: "We can't wait for the summer menu, and we're always trying harder to improve the guest experience." Momofuku responded with an essay.
"This restaurant was never intended or built for a concept like Nishi, and is much more suited for a Fuku+ or Noodle Bar style of service," the Nishi team wrote to me. (A bit of background: Chang called an audible and decided to open a proper restaurant here instead of a fried chicken joint, after signing on to launch a Fuku at Madison Square garden instead). The email went on to mention the restaurant's noise levels, the still-in-development bread service, the difficulties of keeping labor costs in check in a no tipping environment, and the slow pace of menu progression. Altogether, it was perhaps one of the most lucid criticisms I've read of any a restaurant, and it was coming from the restaurant itself. It was strikingly, almost confusingly honest.
Chang himself backed up the email, telling me over the phone that acoustics "have to get better"; that the kitchen, due to overtime constraints, is still in "training mode"; that the dining room is admittedly lacking in traditional comforts; that the restaurant is contemplating adding tea service (even though there's not enough room in the front of the house); that the team is working on bread service (which is difficult because there's insufficient room to warm loaves in the back of the house); and that the entire kitchen needs an overhaul.
A restaurant isn't just food and service; without all the other elements in place, it can't deliver.
I've never before presented restaurants with the opportunity to argue against my review pre-publication. And I didn't here, either. I hadn't told Momofuku I'd be writing about any of these problems, but the team clearly knows how much structural work Nishi needs that it's evidently ready to jump in and anticipate the flaws, to admit its mistakes before someone else can call them out on it.
That's admirable — to a point. The question it raises, however, is whether other diners know that Chang knows that Nishi isn't up to par, whether they know they're paying full price for something a prominent, experienced restaurateur will preemptively acknowledge isn't good enough. And there's also the question of why Chang, a seasoned businessman, would keep running an establishment that his team admits is the wrong space for that concept, rather than temporarily closing and re-building the restaurant that his talented staff and loyal guests deserve. Chang told me during a phone call he'll be able to do a big renovation down the road "if the restaurant is successful."
He should do that renovation now.
Nishi isn't a mom-and-pop joint operating on a shoestring in an inherited space. This is one of the world's most celebrated hospitality groups building a custom venue, and asking its diners to shell out top dollar for a unique, luxurious style of food, tinged with the glow of Momofuku's marketable brand of cool. But despite the brilliant work of the kitchen and the front-of-house team, Nishi is hobbled by its physical space, its prices, and its incomplete presentation of high-end dining. A restaurant isn't just food and service; without all the other elements in place, it can't deliver. It's not Jiminez's fault, it's not Pinsky's. This one's on Chang.
Cost: Appetizers, $15-26. Pastas: $24-$32. Mains: $31 for mackerel, $36 for roast pork. A full meal for two (two starters and three pastas, or 2-3 pastas and a meat), generally runs about $95-$115 per person after wine or cocktails.
Sample dishes: Beef crudo with watermelon radish and dashi ponzu, romaine and walnut bagna cauda, ceci e pepe, clams grand lisboa, chitarra with squid and XO, mackerel with daikon.
Bonus tip: Nishi offers a limited number of reservations via the Momofuku website, but is primarily a walk-in restaurant.