Your opinion on the current era of Momofuku will depend on whether you enjoy hanging around chic outlets like Lululemon, 3den (an app-powered oasis with tree swings and nap pods), and the Drugstore (where you pay for $10 activated charcoal drinks by text message). The global operator of restaurants, whose bare-bones early days served as a raffish counterpoint to the conformities and luxuries of Midtown dining, has opened five New York establishments over the past year. All are in upscale malls. All but one is in Midtown.
One sells Korean riffs on shawarma adjacent to Solstice Sunglasses. Another peddles rice and beans and condoms next to a boutique that sells $900 shirts. Noodle Bar pipes out soft serve with truffles across from a Bose store. And now there’s the month-old Bar Wayō, which hawks imitation crab meat sandwiches and bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos® that have been tweaked into an haute amuse of sorts thanks to the addition of...more cheese! The freewheeling fish shack and cocktail parlor is located at Pier 17, a shiny new retail, restaurant, and entertainment center that replaces the Sandy-battered South Street Seaport edifice.
The good news, however, is this: Wayō is the least “mall” feeling of Chang’s recent endeavors. It is the only one that doesn’t require escalators to access. And unlike its more window-deficient brethren, Wayō actually boasts proper views; outdoor seating affords majestic vistas of the East River. The entire complex — a glass-paneled structure that radiates various shades of blue and purple at night — feels more like a phosphorescent greenhouse. One could spend a peaceful evening here sipping on Midori highballs, essentially boozy, fizzy, melon soda, while munching on spicy, scarleted-hued snack puffs.
The kitchen splits the bag of Cheetos lengthwise, in the refined style of Frito Pie, and douses the doodles in sour cream, cotija, and scallions. This dampens the sodium punch of the snack, without detracting from its wonderful processed crunch or industrial spice. The little gift, which is sometimes made with potato chips, revs up the palate for even more salt to come.
Enter the seafood chowder. Big Apple restaurants generally serve the New England variety, often leaden with too much cream, or the Manhattan style, tinged red with tomatoes. Wayō, however, takes an unexpected third route with a rare Rhode Island riff. The soup is clear. Chef Sam Kang, late of Ko, simmers clam stock with bacon, potatoes, and dashi for an assertively saline punch, and smooth, MSG-style roundness. It tastes first of smoke, then of brine. Its execution is as much in conversation with an easygoing seaside bar or a fancy kaiseki spot.
For an imitation crab roll, the kitchen sautés the faux-shellfish — pulverized pollock that’s been cut with starch, formed, and steamed — and slicks it with a heady black pepper sauce and cherry pepper mayo. The alchemy transforms the typically one-note product into something grander; the warmth and saucing convey a level of maritime sweetness that suggests expensive bottarga or indulgent king prawn juices. The $14 masterpiece could best 90 percent of the overchilled, over-mayoed lobster rolls plaguing the city, including Wāyo’s own skippable version.
“Mall Momofuku,” in theory, has the potential to be just as vital as old “East Village Momofuku.” Each of Chang’s recent restaurants have managed to stay true to the group’s ethos of global eclecticism and accessible experimentation. Those traits aren’t typically associated with fancy shopping centers, where restaurants and kiosks often fall back upon the “safe bets” of staid, Euro-centric dining to make their astronomical rents.
Wayō, for its part, wears its Changian merit badges proudly. Sometimes it tries to be an upscale nautical dive, sending out fried calamari with Thai chiles, sesame seeds, and garlic. And sometimes it simply does a good impression of any modern small plates place. Beef tartare initially leans toward Korea; a generous slick of sesame oil imparts an intensely sweet aroma. Then you take a bite. The texture is so silky it tastes pureed, in the style of Lebanese kibbeh naya. The smooth paste, fortified with pine nuts, calls for something crisp and snappy for contrast, so you mash the beef onto sheets of nori or shiso and eat the salty (or licorice-y) wraps with abandon.
There’s also a hamburger meant for dipping in a French dip-style jus. It’s fine. Less impressive is a sloppy swordfish sandwich, the filet coated in a cloying sauce and the insipid slaw spilling out over the edges.
The true gem of the menu is a savory doughnut. Coconut and curry powder-laced breadcrumbs coat the exterior, while a spicy tomato-mushroom paste acts as the stuffing. A server cuts it into four pieces tableside and advises guests to “smell it” before eating to appreciate the aromatics. It is among the fanciest tableside presentations in the world for a doughnut. And yet the $8 dish wouldn’t be any less wonderful if it were sold out of a street cart for breakfast.
As for the cocktail list, bartender Lucas Swallows doesn’t lean too heavily on obvious seaside tropes. No frozen colada machines sit spinning in the corner. Bartenders nod at tiki tendencies without going overboard; there are no paper umbrellas or questionable mugs. The classic Zombie even takes on a peculiar tweak: a peanut butter wash allows patrons to inebriate efficiently with a mix of nutty, sweetened rums. A riff on an Old Fashioned, in turn, conveys a bit of tropical aroma thanks to a whisper of creme de banane.
A more complicated question, however, underlies the easygoing ethos of Wāyo. That is: whether Chang picked the right investor to expand deeper into malls and sporting arenas. That investor is Stephen Ross, the developer who built the oligarchs’ playground that is Hudson Yards, in part, with hundreds of millions of dollars from a public program designed to help poverty-stricken areas of the city. He’s also an avowed defender of vertical dining, hiding good restaurants on the higher floors of his own soulless malls.
Ross garnered national headlines this month when he held a Hamptons fundraiser for President Donald Trump, whose policies and statements on, well, everything, stand at odds with the welcoming ethos of the hospitality industry and its diverse, immigrant-heavy workforce. Chang responded on a podcast by stating that he “fucking hates” Trump and implored Ross to cancel the event. He did not. And while Momofuku restaurants across the country donated a Friday’s worth of profits to RAICES Texas and Planned Parenthood following the controversy, it’s hard to imagine those donations even came close to the millions that Ross helped the president collect for reelection.
Could Chang have predicted this brouhaha upon taking the investment? Maybe not. But one wonders whether a touch more caution could have been exercised before joining forces with a luxury real estate developer — known for the elitist Time Warner Center, and who was making one of the city’s biggest land grabs in a generation at Hudson Yards. That $25 billion project, so far, has not been well received.
In the case of Wayō, Ross isn’t involved in the complex, aside from his Momofuku investment. This means no insistence on sky-high gastronomy; the ground level bar, along with neighboring spots like the Fulton, creates a needed sense of vibrancy and community in a slice of the Seaport that’s sat fallow for too long.
Still, none of this detracts from the larger Faustian bargain. Momofuku, Equinox, Milk Bar, and others get to expand their culturally progressive brands while their billionaire investor gets to expand his astronomical wealth — likely through tax cuts and lax corporate regulations — by supporting the racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering demagogue who is our president.
Momofuku is far from alone in this dilemma. Funding isn’t easy to come by, and there’s no shortage of problematic money or actors in hospitality. But it’s a reality that makes dining at Wayō or elsewhere in the Changian empire feel at least a bit more uncomfortable.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.