When Momofuku Noodle Bar debuted in 2004, it broke new ground. Not only did it popularize ramen and pork belly bao sandwiches, but it ushered in a new type of casual establishment more upscale than fast food, but not exactly fine dining, either. And it catapulted David Chang into the front ranks of the city’s chefs, with a menu that playfully mixed Japanese, Korean, and Chinese elements. The design was new, too, with a clapboard interior of only 650 square feet, necessitating closely spaced, backless seating.
Well, 14 years later a second branch has appeared, not on the East Village’s semi-scruffy First Avenue, but at the chic and expensive Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, where a statue of Christopher Columbus looks down upon traffic streaming in counterclockwise circles. On the third floor and seemingly windowless, the new restaurant boasts a whopping 4,000 square feet of floor space, with more than twice the seats of its predecessor. It’s also cheaper than many restaurants that inhabit the center, including Masa, Porter House, and Per Se. I visited recently to do an early comparison between the new menu and the old.
The design is considerably fancier than the original. As you approach the greeter’s podium you’ll first notice that all the seats throughout the room have backs — the hard wooden stools of its forerunner now banished. Particularly accommodating are plump pleated banquettes, which seem luxurious if you know the old seating arrangements. But the best seating lies along a counter that looks directly into the linear kitchen, where seven or eight line cooks gyrate, supervised by executive chef Tony Kim, who previously worked at the first Noodle Bar.
Those line cooks are busy boiling noodles and shaking them vigorously, frying slabs of pork belly and shreds of mushroom on flat tops, and assembling cucumber salads quite different from those in the East Village branch. The new version is more Sichuan and contains radishes that looked nearly identical to the cukes. The line cooks also slice chicken from a rotating shawarma cylinder, used in the garlic chicken ramen here, but also next door at the cheaper Bāng Bar to make bowls and wraps.
At first glance, the prices seem equal to those downtown, though the Columbus Circle menu offers slightly fewer choices. About half the prices are identical on the two menus, but Columbus Circle ends up being pricier by $10 or $20 per person, partly because of some extra luxury apps, a more extensive alcohol program that now features mixed drinks, and a couple of larger dishes, which tend to be considerably more expensive uptown. In Time Warner Center, a spicy oxtail dish costs $32, while both plates in East Village cost $21 and under.
Subtle menu additions at Columbus Circle include spicy pork dip ($8), which is a mass of shredded pork belly stuffed inside in a tubular steamed bao — undeniably tasty but also a bit cat-foody. It falls in the section titled Bread, along with a shrimp patty sandwich and a caramelized shiitake bao that are also on the original downtown menu.
But over the bar on the opposite side of the room, you’ll spot a flipping automated sign that offers a special or two not on the regular menu, which can change by the hour. On my second visit, it was Chang’s classic pork belly bao, identical to the original and priced the same (two for $13). It also advertised a discount banana daiquiri, which was a steal at $6.
The section called Small includes pricier dishes that boost the overall cost of a meal uptown. Fried blue prawns ($23) describes a quintet of head-on shrimp that have been cleaned and coated with Sichuan spices and fried, recalling Chang’s collaboration with Danny Bowien at the shuttered Fuku+. They are ominously huge, and also of superior deliciousness. Still, the dish is basically a large app for one person.
Downtown seven bowls of ramen are available, while uptown has five, which shifts the emphasis slightly away from noodles. What’s more, the uptown bowls are made with barley ramen, which have a different color and flavor than the wheat ramen served in the East Village. There are further subtle differences between the contrasting ramen rosters. The spicy beef ramen downtown floats slabs of beef rib, which prove chewier and less tasty than the brisket used in the same dish uptown.
Even though they’re more expensive, the bigger dishes in the Large section at Columbus Circle are particularly good, and provide an upscale taste of Chang. The spicy oxtail stew seems more Korean than the First Avenue version, through inclusion of rice cake and daikon. Rice sprinkled with sesame seeds make it possible for this $32 item to feed two, especially if you order a few side dishes or apps.
These might include bigeye tuna crudo ($19) pounded flat as a crepe and dotted with yuzu zest, or the fantastic roasted carrots sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds, or a simple green salad. Uptown and downtown Momofuku Noodle Bar provides a single dessert, soft serve ice cream topped with puffed rice.
As with some other Chang restaurants, there are flaws in concept. Here, but not downtown, you must fill out a paper form indicating which dishes you want to order and in what quantity. It feels like a pop quiz. Flip it over and the alcohol is on the other side. The server drops by and you give her the order form. This is a nutsy system, because once you order, it’s hard to attract the server again to add, say, another drink or another dish or two. And how do you order things which pop up on the specials sign at the side of the room? You must treat your order form as a write-in ballot.
“This is the best meal I’ve had in weeks,” one of my guests exclaimed. Indeed, the food I tasted, which included most of the menu, was generally superb, while retaining its quirkiness. And eating in the more comfortable, upscale setting does make dining more pleasurable than at the bare bones downtown branch.