Steak au poivre, a nourishing mainstay at any brasserie, is about as beautiful as a muddy pothole. Momofuku Ko, a chef’s counter spot that specializes in tasting menus as long as a Christopher Nolan film, wants to change that. It beautifies the beef — for a price.
A chef slicks a speckled gray plate with a layer of green peppercorn sauce; on top of that he lays three crimson sheets of charcoal-warmed, grass-fed beef, drizzled with rendered fat. The meat conveys a hint of sweetness, a whisper of funk, and a sidekick of capsicum bitterness. What was once rustic is now a bovine fever dream assembled like charcuterie origami.
The carpaccio of sorts disappears in four, maybe five bites. The preparation and portion size is an improvement on the oversized classic in a way that makes it seem both more refined and paradoxically more accessible: Well, sort of.
It would be disingenuous to claim that anything served as part of a thirteen-course tasting is more accessible than a one-plate meal at a neighborhood French spot, but changes at the restaurant point towards chef Sean Gray and David Chang getting back to Ko’s more approachable roots. Last year, Ko debuted a six-course menu for $90 as well as a five course offering for $75. Both menus are almost hundred bucks cheaper than the full dinner.
It’s almost a good deal.
I sampled the $90 offering twice recently and if that price sounds familiar, it’s because the original Ko charged five bucks less for its debut menu when it opened in 2008. In its original East Village location, Ko quickly became a pivotal New York player in what the French called bistronomie: a movement that extricated ambitious food from Midtown’s stodgy power corridors served at stripped-down, downtown spaces at reasonable prices. The fact that the original Ko was impossible to get into signaled that this might be the future of fine dining for a generation of non-banker gourmands.
That future, at least in the context of the accessible tasting menu, was not to be.
Michelin-starred spots with $125-and-under prix-fixes — like Luksus, Semilla, Torrisi, and Take Root — would close, while the city would become oversaturated with sushi and kaiseki spots where dinner for two would easily scratch at $1,000. The price of dinner at Ko, in turn, would rise, hitting $175 when it relocated to a new space near the Bowery and then to $195 in 2016. A party of two can now drop just shy of, you guessed it, a grand at Ko.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism. I awarded four stars in 2015, arguing that the venue had transformed from a brash, experimental venue into a smarter, more nuanced, more comfortable fine-dining temple. The ambience, which used to be little more than chefs cooking in front of you in a cramped kitchen (and some really great cookbooks in the john), now consists of stunning works of graffiti by artist David Choe — as well as chefs cooking in front of you in a more spacious kitchen. You pay more because you get more — save the cookbooks that had been in the john, which are now in the dining room.
But none of these upgrades change the fact that the accessible tasting menu is an endangered species. And where it does persist, it feels more like a temporary discount before the reviews come in and the big renovation occurs — or an entry-level accommodation for guests sequestered from the main dining room. This brings us to the $145 lounge menu at Eleven Madison Park, the $195 salon menu at Per Se, and the bar menus at Ko.
This is not a complaint that some of the city’s most heralded restaurants are giving diners a break in an era of sky-high rents and labor costs. But it’s hard to shake the fact that once upon a time, $85 got you the full experience at Ko. And now, you pay $90 and you get about half the experience.
It’s not breaking news that the food on the six-course menu is pretty great. Technically it’s a seven course menu if you count the flight of amuses, like a tiny lobster roll with shiso paloise, pomme souffle filled with creme fraiche (a.k.a. chips and dip), as well as a single fried chicken oyster that’s soft and medium rare within and unusually sweet and tangy on the outside.
What’s the secret? “Honey mustard powder,” says the waiter. There’s your four-star McDonald’s chicken nugget, a statement I feel comfortable making because Chang begins both the $90 menu and the $195 experience with virtually same amuses.
Not everything’s the same, of course. The menu is served not at the roomy, u-shaped bar but rather at the counter by the front door. This means that during my two recent dinners I overlooked a wall of wine bottles instead of Choe’s more compelling murals. And instead of watching chefs grill shellfish over the binchotan I watched staffers polish wine glasses in a corner that resembled the service bar at a hotel restaurant.
The best entertainment from these seats is checking your iPhone — and eating. The classics still wow. Uni with chickpea puree is still a mind-bending inquiry in the color orange, both man-made and maritime. The shaved foie over riesling gelee is an eternal classic, the pink snowflakes melting down into a sweet livery paste on the tongue. That avant-garde steak au poivre is exciting as any 2008 Momofuku dish that you’d email all your friends about with a grainy pic from your Blackberry. I can’t think of better bouillabaisse being served in Manhattan right now: A chef swings by and pours a silky moat of shellfish bisque over saffron aioli and a charcoal-grilled lobster tail. It tastes precisely like it sounds, like a Mediterranean tidal pool laced with cream.
The next savory course is. . . actually that’s the last savory course, which points to the problem with Momofuku Ko’s bar menu: It feels incomplete. You’re like, wait a minute, where’s the rest? The six-course affair isn’t so much a logical progression of courses or a proper meal as it is a large snack. I mentioned to a manager, who noticed I wasn’t eating my wild rice ice cream with candied seaweed, that I was craving a bit more non-dessert fare, he was kind enough to send over a whole dry-aged duck breast. It was fine.
Stomach distension is not the goal of fine dining, nor should it be. But if a recent visit to Contra ($74) both stimulated and satiated — a few slices of American wagyu after that restaurant’s fish course helped in that regard — my last meal at Ko’s bar was more of an intellectual and gustatory tease, which is the not the experience you want after spending about $160 after alcohol and tip. A little bit of skate tonkotsu or a slice or two of duck, both on the longer menu, is what Ko needs here.
When pressed about the price of additional courses — like that duck breast Ko sent out, a rep for Momofuku responded over email: “We do not offer supplements. On some occasions — for instance, when regulars who frequent the bar request a little more food, and depending on availability, we will prepare it for them.”
Chang, to be fair, said during a phone interview that the bar menu is more geared to regulars of Ko, folks who wanted to try new and old dishes in a more truncated format.
But in a city where where the accessible tasting menu venue is becoming more of a rarity, perhaps he should be paying more attention to the experience of those who have their first interactions with Ko at the bar; to those who might not have the luxury of being a regular at one of the city’s most ambitious tasting menu counters; to those who might not be recognized by the staff and lavished with extra courses (I was sent that outstanding skate tonkotsu on an earlier visit); to those who might not come back after realizing that $90 sometimes doesn’t get you a whole heck of a lot in Manhattan these days.
I should note that Chang is expanding the bar to a space next door this fall, at which time guests might not overlook a drab wall of wine but, possibly, an experimental test kitchen. Perhaps than Ko’s bar might reclaim some of the iconoclastic, democratic energy it possessed in the late aughts.
But for now, the right way to experience Ko is save up for the full $195 menu. For something more affordable, try Contra.