Two Momofuku Ssäm Bar alums have teamed up on an exciting, new tasting menu pop-up that’s running in the East Village through the end of this month. Nudibranch, located at 130 First Avenue, at St. Marks Place, is a collaboration between chefs Victor Xia and Jeff Kim, and the first solo project for the duo.
Kim and Xia met working at Ssäm Bar several years ago, and teamed up on Nudibranch last year to create a menu that paid homage to all the kitchens they’ve cooked in around the city as well as the food they love eating everyday. While the menu incorporates several Asian ingredients in various dishes, the chefs don’t want that to be the defining factor of the project. “We hate the term Asian fusion or pan-Asian,” says Xia. “That is how a lot of people just want to describe food like this. But if you look at the menu you won’t really be able to tie it down to any particular cuisine. Not having to label it is something we really enjoy.”
To that effect, the duo has created menu items like the shaoxing mushrooms. In it, Kim says he uses whatever fresh mushrooms he can find that day at the market, including king oyster mushrooms and maitakes most recently. The mushrooms are then caramelized in a pan along with Chinese Shaoxing wine, aromatics including garlic, a little bit of heavy cream, and then topped with an egg yolk, a handful of chopped chives, and served with a side of Japanese milk bread. “I love cooking with Shaoxing wine and this is a great way to highlight that.”
The soba alla bottarga is influenced by both Japanese and Italian food, says Xia. Bottarga — a salted, cured fish roe — is used in cuisines all over the world, but Xia says this dish draws inspiration from pasta dishes in southern Italy and soba noodle dishes in Japan, where bottarga is shaved on top. Nudibranch’s version also features garlic breadcrumbs and shiro dashi.
For dessert, there’s a pear rosette that’s a take on the Scandinavian rosette cookies and similar to American funnel cakes. In Nudibranch’s iteration, the fried dough takes center stage along with a pear compote, a crème diplomat, and raw, sliced pears on top. “We did a lot of research and techniques with this dish, but in the end decided the simpler the better,” says Xia. “It kind of reminds us of a snowflake,” adds Kim.
Dishes on the menu may change from time to time depending on what ingredients the duo might find at the market, but as of now, the tasting menu is priced at $65 per person and includes at least six courses. Nudibranch offers two seatings — at 6 and 9 p.m., respectively — from Thursdays through Sundays, and up to eight people can be accommodated at each seating. Tables are spaced out six feet apart, and Nudibranch typically seats about two to three parties at a time, according to Xia and Kim.
The pop-up is now into its third week. Xia and Kim have temporarily taken over the space of Taiwanese restaurant Nightmarket, which has essentially shuttered. Xia was running the restaurant prior to the pandemic, but now the restaurant is only intermittently open for takeout during the day, while Nudibranch takes over the space at night.
Xia and Kim met several years ago while working at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Xia was working in the kitchen and Kim worked as a busser. Kim says working at the David Chang restaurant inspired him to get into cooking and he went on to work at places like the Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca, in Spain, Eleven Madison Park, and at Flatiron Korean restaurant Jua, which was his last job before the pandemic-related shutdown. The friends reconnected last summer after Kim had been laid off from his job at Jua due to the pandemic, and the duo decided they wanted to branch out on their own.
In the lead up to the pop-up’s debut, Xia and Kim hosted a one-night only event at the East Village restaurant back in November last year, but the closure of indoor dining in early December put a halt to their plans. They used the time to further experiment with recipes, and fine tune their menu, they say, and with indoor dining’s return on February 12, they were ready to resume service.
Xia and Kim handle everything at the pop-up including prep, cooking, and serving. Diners are asked to arrive 10 minutes prior to their seating for temperature checks and to share information for contact tracing. The duo also encourages diners to stick to a two-hour dining window, which allows them to clean and sanitize the restaurant before a second seating each evening. Xia and Kim say they are aware of the risks of indoor dining — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still lists eating indoors at restaurants among the highest risk activities right now — but they believe they’ve taken all the adequate precautions and say they’re following the lead of other restaurants in the city that have opened their dining rooms.
For now, they’re just focussed on getting through the end of this month. With the constantly shifting guidelines around restaurant openings and closings in New York, Xia and Kim say the pop-up format is ideal because it allows for a lot of flexibility. The goal, however, is to continue the pop-up, whether at this location, or a different one, and to eventually open up a permanent establishment. “Right now we are just playing it week by week,” says Xia. “We want to find something that best suits what we are trying to accomplish.”