Blue Hill at Stone Barns – Precious…Little

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
USA
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Menu: normally there is an option for 4, 5 and 8 courses priced at $85, $105 and $135 respectively (the 4-course menu is only on Sundays); our 8-course Valentine’s menu was $195/person (food only)
  • See the entire set of photos from this meal on my Flickr

After having had a fantastic meal at the restaurant many years ago, our recent meal – which was a set 8-course menu for Valentine’s Day – proved to be a disappointment overall, firstly because the service was awkward; secondly because the portions were in general too small; thirdly because some of the dishes just didn’t work; and lastly, because it did not seem to stick to its raison d'être of providing a ‘farm-to-table’ dining experience. Having said this, a few of the individual courses were exceptional, demonstrating that there is talent & creativity in the kitchen – but we felt that the restaurant had slightly lost its way based on this particular visit. We do however remain loyal fans of the less formal café, which we frequent quite often.

Going local for locavore

About five years ago, when still living in London, I made a trip to New York to visit my brother. We ended up taking a road trip up to Maine and, just as we were setting out, we decided to stop off for dinner at a place he knew about not too far outside of Manhattan. The restaurant was located on a large plot of farm land owned by the Rockefellers and a hot chef had not-that-long-ago established a restaurant on the premises, which had become one of the more talked about kitchens (and larders) in the New York area.

We arrived in the late afternoon and went for a walk around the grounds. We didn’t have a reservation, and the restaurant was full for dinner, but they let us sit at the bar, where we could order the same food being served in the main dining room. The bar stools turned out to be very comfortable, and the person serving our food and drink was both knowledgeable and affable. We decided to go for the ‘farm-to-table’ menu, which meant that all of the things we ate came directly from their farm, or other local farms.

Beet Burgers (photo courtesy of http://thebeersessions.com)

I fondly remember the pleasure we took in experiencing the amazing vegetables served to us that day, stripped down and sometimes nearly naked. The singularly perfect mini ‘beet burgers’ stand out in particular in my memory as one of the best bites I had before I began keeping track of dishes so ardently via my blog.

As many of you know, I moved back to the US about 6 months ago (boy, that went quick!). So imagine my surprise when I discovered that we live less than a 15-minute drive away from Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Some of the rustic food on offer at Blue Hill Café

Since realizing our close proximity, we have gone many times to the casual Blue Hill Café for lunch, and have always enjoyed the rustic food on offer, especially their soups and the amazing savory cheese scones (you can see some photos here).

Savory Scone from Blue Hill Café

They also have regular farmers markets on the grounds, which are always fun and useful. My only niggle with the place is that they charge $5 for the privilege of parking your car on-site, which I find a tad strange and off-putting.

A winter wonderland

Anyway, I needed to plan something special for Valentine’s Day, not simply because it was V-day, but because Mrs. LF’s birthday falls on the same day and our wedding anniversary in the same week. So I figured a perfect solution would be to plan lunch at Blue Hill’s fine dining restaurant at the farm. I booked it online and made a note that we would also be bringing our 8-month old daughter.

After some emailing back and forth with the front of house, they said that while they didn’t have highchairs in the dining room they did have “tables…that are more comfortable for our younger guests.” That sounded promising and, given that Baby LF is a star when dining out with us, we thought we would be fine as long as the meal didn’t last more than a few hours. We arrived early and, just like in our back yard, there was still snow covering the ground at the farm, which had been there since late December.

Mooove this way please, folks

We walked into the reception area, checked our coats and waited to be seated. Baby LF was still in her stroller as we assumed that she would sit in that by the side of our table throughout the meal, as she normally does. However, this is where things got slightly awkward. The person who greeted us *very quickly* told us that there were no strollers allowed in the dining room. We were a little unprepared for this news, given that our plan had involved her using the stroller throughout the meal. Given that I had specially ordered flowers, which were meant to be waiting on the table, and had also purchased a special gift, which I would present to Mrs. LF table-side, I was concerned that the whole situation was going to unravel as we couldn’t understand how our daughter was going to be able to sit with us during the meal.

Luckily, the person who seemed to be in charge came by after a few uncomfortable minutes and put us more at ease, explaining that there was a table with bench seating and that she could sit in the corner between us, supported by pillows – and that, in fact, his young child had recently done so when they dined in the restaurant. His attitude was one of accommodation and he approached us in good spirits, as opposed to the brisk and borderline confrontational ‘welcome’ that we had initially received. It was weird, because in the end, we found out that the person who had first greeted us so abruptly was actually the person who had been corresponding with me via email. All he had needed to do was explain the situation in a more constructive way and relay the fact that they had a “better” solution for us than leaving our daughter in her stroller for the duration of the meal. However, this did not happen, and we began to feel even more nervous than we already did about bringing a baby into a fine dining room. I think it made them nervous too, because there was definitely some friction, and perhaps they are not used to dealing with infants in the restaurant. As far as I see it, restaurants have two choices in this regard: (a) either don’t allow children, which is perfectly fine and within their prerogative, or (b) do allow children…and if you do, don’t make your guests feel self-conscious about brining them.

(It should be noted that as we are very new to the area and don’t have anyone who can look after our daughter as of yet, we really have no other option than to bring her with us wherever we go…hence when we go out for lunch she accompanies us, and we have never had an issue, either from the restaurants we have visited – some of which have been quite fancy – or from her [as she loves dining out too!]).

Mr. LF gets romantic

In any event, when we were finally brought to the table, we were pleasantly surprised by the layout, and Baby LF absolutely loved sitting with us like an adult. She was very comfortable and could sit up or lay down with plenty of room. We were also in the corner, out of the way, so the restaurant was probably happy too.

We were so busy getting set up for the meal that Mrs. LF didn’t even notice the flowers I had ordered for her, so I had to subtly point this out to her! 🙂

The main dining room

The main dining room is simple and stylish, with dark wooden beams running across the ceiling in a maze of rectangles and triangles, plus a stunning floral arrangement in the central service area. As there was only one menu that day – especially for Valentine’s – we didn’t really need to look at the menus because there were no options, but of course I did anyway.

Petite portions, incongruent ingredients

We were in better spirits, and although my own spirits would be provided through the suggested wine pairing, I ordered a celebratory glass of Champagne for my better half.

For the lady: NV Pierre Mouncuit, Blancs de Blancs, Grand Cru, Oger Champagne / Por moi: 2006 Schramsberg Brut Rosé, Calistoga

Her Blanc de Blanc from Pierre Mouncuit was exceptionally good and I snuck a few sips when she wasn’t looking. My own American fizz was pleasant enough, and these pink and white sparklers were going to serve another purpose besides mirroring my flower arrangement – we would sip them while nibbling on our amuse bouches and also for the first course.

Amuse Bouche: Farro Crisps with (from left to right) Ricotta, Sweet Potato, Pâté, Speck & Butter

Soon after our menus were taken away, a slate stone donning colourful dabs of edible spreadables appeared, which we were meant to function as toppings for the thin farro crisps. They were all fairly nice, though none were particularly memorable. The least successful for me was the butter, which just seemed odd to spread on such thin bread due to its texture. Also, the bread was very brittle – sort of like a papadum – and it kept disintegrating no matter what we tried to spread on top of it. As a side note, we asked the waiter what the pâté was made out of (we presumed it was liver from chicken or some other type of poultry) but he didn’t know. He tried to find out and came back and told us something rather unintelligible, and I still don’t think he exactly understood himself. 6/10.

The sparkling wines both went well with these various bites, but particularly the Champagne, which had a nice bite of its own.

Amuse Bouche: Grapefruit & Pomegranate Juice

After these nibbles were cleared away, they brought us glasses of fruit juice, presumably to cleanse our palates. This struck us as a bit odd, mostly because we couldn’t imagine that the grapefruit and pomegranate hailed from the farm (or a nearby one), and we thought that local sourcing of ingredients was the whole raison d’être of the restaurant. It should be noted that the glasses weren’t poured evenly, with one very clearly containing more juice than the other – and you don’t expect this lack of attention to detail in a restaurant like this. It was also just slightly odd to drink a fruit juice after the little bites we had just eaten (plus drinking fruit juices with rich and meaty foods isn’t good for your digestion).

Course 1: Stone Barns Panther Soy Beans, Tofu, Oyster, American Sturgeon

The first of the proper courses was now upon us. I was so excited by it that I forgot to take a picture of the plate before I had eaten the oyster…oops. My anticipation was warranted, as this was a phenomenal dish. There were clean, precise, complementary flavors and textures: the saline taste of the oyster blended into the slightly tart soup, with a salty accent from the caviar and lots of mouthfeel variation from the chewy soybeans and spongy tofu. It was a very compelling dish, though I wasn’t sure how oysters or sturgeon fit the farm-to-table bill, but at least the sturgeon (and maybe the oysters) were American. 9/10.

The sparkling wines that we continued to sip also suited this course very well.

Course 2: Farm Eggs, Brioche, Pancetta, Spinach, Leeks

The presentation of the next dish was wonderfully whimsical. A ceramic egg crate was placed in the center of the table, containing a soft-boiled egg for each of us, along with toast soldiers and some fun accompaniments. There was nothing in particular that stood out flavour-wise with this dish – although the spinach was pretty amazing – and sadly, in my eggcitement, I forgot to sprinkle some of the pancetta inside my shell before I had nearly scooped out all of the soft loveliness inside. It was a fun and playful dish with good flavors, but certainly nothing mind-blowing. 6/10.

The accompanying wine was a 2007 Vinatigo Gual from the Canary Islands. It had a strong edge to it, which was alleviated when sipped in tandem with the dish, and I grew to like it by the time my glass was empty. It was an interesting idea for a pairing.

Course 3: Greenhouse Greens, Winter Flavors & Textures

I think we were both struggling to control our giggles when they put down a bowl of leaves in front of us in a very fancy glass, with three pots of mostly-vegetal ‘winter flavors & textures’ placed in the center of the table, presumably for us to share. We were also given chopsticks for this course, and I almost felt transported to Japan. There was not much – if any – of a dressing on the leaves, and they tasted about the same as the greens we get from our local farmers market (or even normal market to be honest).

Course 3: Winter Flavors & Textures Detail (Pickled Radishes, Eggs & Ham, Olive Tapenade)

The pickled radishes worked well when they were interspersed with the greens using our chopsticks, but the tapenade seemed a peculiar combination for a plain salad, and while the little strips of cooked egg and ham were nice enough, they also didn’t add any particular sparkle. This was a disappointing course for us, but at least most of the ingredients were from the farm or local area (though I don’t know about the olives). 5/10.

The sommelier poured a glass of 2001 August Kessler, Kabinett Trocken ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ from the Rheingau district in Germany to go with this dish. It was refreshing and offered apple on the palate with good acidity and a little bit of length, and was a decent combination – I thought it worked with the saltiness present in the salad. It was also nice to see German wine being used in a wine pairing, as it is often omitted seemingly without reason.

Potato & Onion Bread

After the salad came the bread. And they had not skimped on that. It was an excellent loaf of potato and onion bread with a particularly crispy and enjoyable crust. It came with good-quality butter from a nearby farm. Maybe the heartiness of the bread was meant to balance the lightness of the previous course, or maybe it was provided so we could mop up the sauce from the next course…?

Course 4: Maine Scallop & Sweet Shrimp, Curried Cauliflower, Grapes, Almonds

The scallop dish was probably my favorite of the savory courses. It had a simple yet striking presentation and it held my attention on the palate too. A perfectly seared, humungous Maine scallop was the central component, and its underlying sweetness was aided and abetted by a thin patty of sweet shrimp (which was mixed with herbs and spices) that rested on its crown. But the reason for the success of the dish was the deeply flavored golden curry, which was gently but not timidly spiced. The cauliflower and almonds added crunch, while green grapes lent little bursts of sweetness. It was pretty much a faultless dish; I only wish there had been a little more of it. 9/10.

I am not sure how much I agreed with the wine they poured with it, which was a 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux, ‘Les Terres Blanches’ from Meursault in Burgundy. Mrs. LF felt that it cancelled out the flavors of the curry, and I sort of agreed. It is a shame as it was a good wine in its own right. I perhaps would have gone for something a bit more exotic.

Course 5: Bourbon Red Turkey Crépinette with Romaine Lettuce, Portobello Mushroom, Jerusalem Artichoke & Truffle Sauce

The giggles that we had held in check at the sight of our crystal bowl of salad leaves suddenly returned when the fifth, and pretty ridiculous, course was presented to us. I mean, come on, just look at it. As they say in England, were they taking the p*ss? Apparently not, as the waiter dutifully explained the three vegetables that wrapped around the little balls of turkey crépinettes.

The three spheres of sausage – which were tiny! – were perfectly fine, but we really felt a bit cheated by this course. The only thing that attempted to save the dish was a particularly intense dab of black truffle sauce. Intrigued, I asked the waiter where the truffles came from, as I wasn’t sure if there were local truffles in the Hudson Valley. He once again didn’t know and went to the kitchen to check. After a few minutes passed, he came back and informed us they were, in fact, from Australia of all places. This was evidently the first he had heard of this too. By this point I was pretty sure that the restaurant had lost its way a little bit since my last meal there. I mean, I can understand that in the dearth of winter, it must not be easy to source a large and interesting menu from purely local produce (though noma seems to do it from a very cold Scandinavia), but why couldn’t they have utilized some local forest mushrooms and made a concentrated sauce out of them? 4/10, mostly because of the stingy portions (and if you read my blog, you will know that I am not usually one that is into large portions, so this is saying something).

At least we were given a terrific tipple to drink with it, in the form of a 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ from Piedmont. It has a lovely acidity to it, which kept it from overpowering (what little there was of) the turkey and truffles.

Course 6: Grass-Fed Beef, Chickpeas, Watercress, Humus

The final savory course unfortunately didn’t do much for us either – in fact, it was just plain weird. Some beautifully cooked and quite mild-tasting beef (which I believe was from the Hudson Valley) had been placed on top of some chickpeas and humus. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Well, it didn’t go together any better than it sounded on paper as far as the tastes and textures were concerned. Texture-wise, it was a very mushy affair, and it was a very odd combination in the flavor department too, with everything tasting fairly muted and nothing enhancing anything else. I didn’t understand the logic behind the dish, and also wondered where they sourced their chickpeas from as they normally grow in a very warm climate (maybe they used their greenhouses?). I don’t mean to harp on about the sourcing of ingredients – well, yes I do – but this is one of the main things on which the restaurant has historically prided itself. Just look at their description of their own menu; or rather, their lack of a traditional menu. Oh, and by the way, this portion was also pretty small. 5/10.

The red wine that we drank with the beef was a 2001 Rioja Reserva from Señorío de P. Peciña, which was a perfectly pleasant example that worked well with the beef.

Single Estate Costa Rican Nararno Cattleya Coffee, Roasted at Irving Farm (Millerton, NY)

Right after our unsatisfying meat course plates were removed, a waiter came to the table donning coffee and tea menus. I noted that these beverages could only be obtained by paying a supplement to the already hefty price of the meal (which had so far left us wanting in many ways). Despite this, I did want a caffeine jolt to liven things up, so I ordered the house drip coffee for an extra $4.00. I assumed that it would be brought out either with or after our dessert, but no, it arrived a few minutes after I placed the order…before the pre-dessert. Now, I have dined out at a fair number of nice restaurants, but I had yet to see this. Maybe it’s just that I’m now used to European customs, and that this is an American one, but I found it very odd, and asked the waiter to bring some fresh coffee back with, or after, the main course, which he did with a slight look of puzzlement.

Course 7: Blue Hill Farm Yogurt Sorbet, Granny Smith Apple & Celery Gelee, Noble Sour Vinegar

I did take a better picture of the pre-dessert but I wanted to use the above image to convey a sense of how teeny it actually was. Okay, it was a pre-dessert, so it shouldn’t be too substantial, but this was part of a trend throughout the meal. In any case, this tasted very good and it functioned well, enlivening and clearing our palates for the main dessert, which was soon to come. The addition of the vinegar was a nice touch. 7/10.

Course 8: Chocolate Brioche, Granola Ice Cream, Milk Jam

I also have other pictures of the chocolate brioche, but I liked this one the best. If you care to, you can see how miniscule this portion was in reality by looking at this photo…and this was the main dessert. In any event, I wish this dessert had been bigger, because it was spectacular. It was probably as good as any gooey chocolate dessert I’ve had. It didn’t do anything ‘out of the box’, but what it did do, it did perfectly. The accompanying ice cream did taste faintly of granola, but it was more of a canvass on which to enjoy the rich dark chocolate and golden brioche. I don’t remember tasting any jam, but maybe I am mistaken. Credit where credit is due. I give it a 9/10 only because the portion again seemed stingy.

The last of the wines was a 1996 Moulin Touchais from Coteaux des Layon in the Loire Valley (a sweet Chenin Blanc). It was excellent and I was glad they decided to do something different than a Sauternes or a Banyuls.

Petit Four: Vanilla Milkshake

With my newly poured coffee, we were given a few petit fours. One was a dainty little milkshake, which was pretty plain vanilla, as they say – nice but nothing to brag about.

Petit Four: Chocolate Sandwich

The second was a little wedge of chocolate, with crispy edges, which from memory was very nice. I would give the petit fours a 6/10 overall as there didn’t seem to be any real imagination behind them, and if you are just going to serve a vanilla milkshake in a place like this, it should at least be one of the best vanilla milkshakes your guests are likely to have had…and, for me, it wasn’t.

Spots & Stripes

We asked for the bill and the three of us were on our way. I should note that the gentleman who had made us feel very uncomfortable at the beginning of the meal did come by towards the end of the service and was in much better spirits – he was very pleasant and I assume he was trying to make amends for what we felt was an initially abrupt and slightly icy greeting. He was also very helpful as we exited the restaurant and was definitely rolling out the charm. I hope it wasn’t simply because the staff had probably seen us photographing the food throughout the meal.

When refinement goes too far

I had very mixed feelings about this meal, but most of them were negative. A lot of this was not to do with the food itself, but rather being made to feel quite on edge from the word ‘go’. We felt very self-conscious throughout the meal, and I don’t think we were just being paranoid. It also felt as if the people serving us were walking on eggshells, possibly because we had a baby with us. However, as Mrs. LF said, rather than being nervous about having a child to deal with (who, by the way, was pretty much perfectly behaved), the front of house should have taken this as a challenge to make us feel even more welcome and comfortable, just to show that they can handle anything that comes their way. For example, I can’t imagine that if Restaurant Gordon Ramsay allowed children they would make you feel unwelcome, but would rather make the meal unforgettable by making you feel like you were at home from the moment you entered their domain.

In terms of the food, it was really a mixed bag, with a few real high notes, but also some dishes that felt like they had lost their way. Our overwhelming feeling was that we had been slightly short-changed, with many portion sizes verging on miniscule. Also, there were some really incongruous dishes, which didn’t function at either the flavor or textural level I would expect in a restaurant such as this, and especially at the price for the set tasting menu.

For me, the magic of this restaurant when I first dined there years ago was its paired-down ethos of presenting remarkably fresh produce in intriguing yet simple ways. Based on our more recent meal, it would seem that the kitchen has tried to refine the dishes so much that they have taken some of the joy and soul out of the food. Indeed, the overall feeling throughout the meal was that everything was being slightly forced – it just didn’t flow naturally. This is a shame as there is obviously plenty of inventiveness and skill in the kitchen, but they seemed to have lost their way a little bit based on this meal.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 6.5/10

Wine: I didn’t get a chance to look through the wine list in detail at the restaurant, as I wanted to go for the pairing – which was very good – but they definitely have a well-researched and broad list, though I didn’t have time to research the mark-up levels. For reference, the wines I had with the pairing are all listed below, as well as pictured (except for the pink American sparkler).

The Wine Pairing Labels

Wines Served in the Pairing

  1. 2006 Shramsberg Brut Rosé (Calistoga, CA) [not pictured]
  2. 2007 Vinatigo Gual (Canary Islands)
  3. 2001 August Kessler Riesling Trocken, ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ (Rheingau, Germany)
  4. 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux Meursault, ‘Les Terres Blances’ (Burgundy, France)
  5. 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ (Piedmont, Italy)
  6. 2001 Señorío de P.Peciña Rioja Reserva (Spain)
  7. 1996 Moulin Touchais (Coteaux du Layon, Loire Valley, France)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns twice, once for lunch in 2006 and this time for dinner in 2011*

Blue Hill at Stone Barns on Urbanspoon

momofuku ko – It is what it is

momofuku ko
163 First Avenue
(between 10th & 11th Streets)
New York, NY 10003
Website
Map
Online Reservations (online only…be forewarned!)

  • Tasting menu only for both lunch and dinner: lunch is served Fri-Sun, is currently $175, takes about 3 hours and is larger than the dinner meal (which is served 7 days a week, takes about 2 hours and is currently $125)
  • For both meals, the kitchen decides what it is cooking and there is no choice (although you can inform them of any allergies ahead of time and they will try to accommodate you)
  • The alcohol pairing for dinner was $95, and was both generous and diverse

Exciting, well conceived and executed food served to you by the chefs at your bar stool. To them, it’s just food; to you, it’s possibly one of the best meals you’ve had this year. It’s a pain to book, but if you get a golden ticket it is certainly worth the angst. ko...go.

That elusive peach

Just like so many others, I had tried to reserve one of the 12 fabled bar stools available at David Chang’s double Michelin-starred restaurant momofuku ko quite a few times.

When still living in London, I had attempted to reserve a spot for upcoming trips to Manhattan, but to no avail. As is well-known, reservations at ko are only available on the restaurant’s website, and you can reserve six days in advance. At 10.00am every morning (on their server’s time, not yours), hundreds or thousands of people presumably click away at the same time, hoping that the black-colored weekly calendar grid won’t be full of white x’s but instead littered with green checkmarks, meaning that there are actually seats (well, stools) available.

Seemingly like all things David Chang, this reservation policy has proven controversial – on the one hand it is democratic (albeit in the extreme) and on the other hand it is exceedingly frustrating for everyone trying to get a table, whether they be a celebrity, their PA or normal folks like you and me.

Anyhow, my blogger friend @catty was in town for a few weeks and we wanted to go out for dinner one night. I had booked somewhere (Minetta Tavern if you care to know), but thought I’d give the old reservation slot machine another whirl. And, ko and behold, when I clicked away at 10.00am on the dot (and I mean on the dot), the upcoming column of Monday dining times appeared and all the table times had a green checkmark next to them. I hastily selected one of the earlier slots and then on the next page a countdown began from 120 seconds, during which time you have to frantically enter all of your details and credit card number, etc. – otherwise, you will lose the temporarily held reservation. Luckily, I had my credit card to hand and all was good. I was finally going to take a bite out of that hopefully juicy peach.

Most bloggers will also aware of the fact that there is strictly no photography allowed in the restaurant, and in a sense I was actually looking forward to this. I could leave the camera in my bag and just focus on enjoying the food, not having to get that perfect shot of each dish. This is ostensibly the aim of the policy – but more on that later.

However, I knew I needed to provide at least some visual entertainment for my eventual post, so I took a snap of the luxurious gift I was bringing to @catty – two big boxes of an all-American treat that she just can’t get enough of. No, not me, Junior Mints.

I thought this might be the only photo I'd be allowed to take that evening

So there you go. Stunning, ain’t it?

Cold night, warm environs

I arrived a bit early – okay, an hour early – so I decided to brave the below-freezing weather and wander around the neighborhood as I hadn’t been down this way in a while. I wandered into the nearby Milk Bar and thought about getting some of the justifiably legendary Crack Pie (apparently, there is a trademark pending on that item plus a few others at Milk Bar); however, they informed me that the pie needed to stay refrigerated…so I decided to pick a few up on the way back, even though it was below freezing outside.

As I walked back to ko, I noticed David Chang was having a bite to eat before dinner service. He was noticeably enjoying his chat with the chefs. Still about 30 minutes early, I didn’t feel like crashing the party, so I took a quick snap of him in his signature skullcap behind the cage-like doors and kept walking, trying to keep warm.

David Chang filling up before heading out

Soon enough, I saw that @catty had checked in on Foursquare, so I headed back.

After having read a number of accounts regarding how the narrow dining room with L-shaped bar seating was cold, harsh and awkward, I was quite pleasantly surprised upon entering. There was a certain warmth about the place, with soft orange lighting and warm wood tones being the dominant features. The three chefs seemed totally at ease, and went about their work very quietly. One of the few people who was not behind the counter came over to enquire about drinks, and I decided to go for the suggested alcohol pairing. This cost $95 while the tasting menu itself was $125, so it was not particularly cheap given the cost of the meal. Still, I was looking forward to it as I’d heard that they do some interesting combinations, and not solely wine.

We were lucky enough to get the two seats located on the short side of the bar, which afforded us a good view of the goings on in the totally open kitchen.

So, without further adieu…

Son of a…this is good[1]

We attempted to scribble down notes about what we were eating on our blackberries (@catty doing an admirably better job than myself, maybe in part due to the alcohol setting in during the later courses for me). So, some things may be slightly inaccurate, but you should get the picture…so to speak ;-).

Amuse Bouches: things kicked off with a trio of pristinely presented little teasers. These included:

  1. Pork rinds seasoned with tōgarashi: these were impossibly delicate, light as O2, and just a tad seasoned with the chilli salt. If blind-folded, I for one wouldn’t have thought it was pork straight away. 8/10.
  2. Sweet Maine shrimp with mustard sauce: the little shrimp itself was of excellent quality and full of lovely sweetness, as advertised. This was married with a deep mustard sauce which complemented the sweetness perfectly. 8/10.
  3. Duck liver mousse with chopped nuts: this was ridiculously luscious – out of this world for such a small bite. The nuts worked well texturally too. We wanted fifteen more bites of this. 10/10.

These amuse bouches were paired with a brut Champagne (Christian Etienne, Cuvée Tradition Brut, NV) which went pretty well with all three nibbles.

Course 1 – Long Island fluke, fermented black bean paste, myoga: the fluke was nice and fresh (albeit nowhere as good on its own as the fluke I had at Le Bernardin last year), but the thing I loved about this dish was the delayed heat delivered via thin slices of deep red peppers. These peppers also lent a welcome rich and round flavor to the dish. 8/10.

This course was paired with a remarkable sweet sake – I wish I had gotten the name. 😦

Course 2 – Spanish red mackerel tataki, rice cereal, pickled onions, mustard sauce: as @catty kept reminding me, this dish was phenomenal in no small part due to the unbelievable texture of the mackerel – it was a very high sashimi grade based on my own experience of raw fish. I loved the way the pickled onions and mustard worked here, bringing sharpness and some more of that perfectly tuned heat. This was paired with the same sweet sake as the first course. 9/10.

The alcohol was beginning to kick in, which meant the first of many visits to the bathroom. I decided to take a picture of the more interesting elements of the room (well, no, not those ones) and had a good time looking at which books Mr. Chang was presumably reading at the moment. I only realized afterwards through the wonders of twitter that a food blog I often follow in the US has actually done a review about the books in ko’s bathroom. What can I say…

momofuku ko bathroom library

Anyway, I was pleased to see that Mr. Chang and I share many of the same books – notably the new noma cookbook (review on the restaurant soon to come, by the way) – and told myself I better not start leafing through them, otherwise I would start delaying the kitchen…and I didn’t want to piss those guys off, believe me.

As I was about to leave, I caught this guy staring at my posterior – how rude!

Crazy dude in the bathroom

Course 3 – Toasted brioche, caramelized onions, bone marrow, Gruyère cheese broth: back at my stool after loosening my own, a dainty rectangular slice of soft brioche was presented in the middle of a shallow bowl, after which the chef poured the translucent cheese broth around it. The aroma was immediate and totally off the chart. It was like you had just entered a sauna, but instead of normal steam, the air was infused with the intense smell of a massive cauldron of fondue. In a word: yum. The extreme scent belied a rather delicate but pointed broth, which worked seamlessly with the marrow and onions (which were particular amazing). I didn’t like the brioche itself though – it somehow reminded me of stale bread, but Catty couldn’t get enough of it…so one of us is crazy. I’ll leave you to guess who :). 7/10.

Course 4 – Smoked egg, American sturgeon, onions, greens, fingerling potato chips: this was visually one of the more arresting dishes – we’re talking stunning, stop-in-your tracks gorgeous. The egg, which I presumed to be cooked sous vide, was presented as a perfectly round white disc, with a single pie slice missing, where from the creamy yellow yolk oozed out. While you could smell the smoke quite clearly, it was much more subtle when eaten. The sturgeon, which I believe was Pacific white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) was good. It was slightly creamy and provided a nice texture and rich saltiness – but it wasn’t amazing. It was a very good course – mostly due to the amazingly cooked egg – but for me it wasn’t a standout dish from the evening. 7/10.

For any pedants reading this post, I have forgotten the drinks served with both courses three and four, but I know that one of them came with a golden American beer that was light, creamy and had a hint of heat – it was pretty good.

Course 5 – Grilled beef tongue, horseradish, mustard, sauerkraut, homemade pasta: I really enjoyed this more ‘normal’ dish (‘normal’ in the sense that it was a little bowl of pasta which you could conceivably find in a good restaurant in Italy…minus the horseradish, mustard and sauerkraut, that is!). It was a comforting bowl of food, with the pillowy-soft ovular pasta (I thought they said it was tagliatelle but didn’t look like it to me) playing well with the richness of the tongue. The spicy and sour elements worked well to balance the richness of the meat. As I said, I really enjoyed this…although @catty thought it was a bit ‘meh’ and was maybe her least favorite dish of the meal. 7/10.

This was served with a German or Austrian white wine which I believe was made from Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Traminer grapes. It cut nicely through the dish and complemented the sourness and spice quite well.

Course 6 – New Jersey scallop, razor clams, clam chowder, celery juice, dried pineapple: this was easily one of my favourite dishes of the meal. The few slices of scallops were simply to die for – and they were from New Jersey! 🙂 The clam chowder was served on top of the dish almost as a sauce and possessed a pronounced peppery heat – and no delay this time. The genius of the dish, though, lay in the two sweeter elements. First, the celery juice which we saw squeezed in front of us earlier on (through some type of archaic looking metal contraption), lay at the bottom of dish: a sort of translucent green pond. The natural sweetness of the celery – which you don’t always think of as being (only) sweet – worked amazingly well with the other flavors, bringing a new dimension to the dish. And there were three or four bits of dried fruit, which I guessed to be pineapple (the chef confirmed I was right – a dual affirmation that I am not a douche for getting it right, and that I am one, because I asked him). Anyhow, this was unexpected and brilliant. 9/10.

The dish was paired with a purposefully and profusely oxidized wine from the Jura appellation in France, which to me tasted distinctly like wet rope. I wasn’t feeling this one.

Course 7 – Shaved foie gras, lychees, pine nut brittle, Riesling gélee: this was certainly another one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet and tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they were placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and to me it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavour of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat. 9/10.

It was matched with a different and fairly sweet sake, which coincidentally I had been served with another foie gras dish not all that long ago at George Mendes’ Aldea.

Course 8 – Honey-glazed duck, turnip in pumpernickel crumbs, Chinese greens: this was the largest of the courses, which seemed to worry @catty when she first espied it, and was excellent. The duck breast looked more like a piece of red game, served in a roughly rectangular slab that displayed the purple-red hue of the flesh, with a very thin and very crispy skin on top. When we enquired, “Where’s the fat?”,  the chef replied, “Oh, we just rendered that all off.” Of course they had. Hailing from Napa Valley, the flavour of the bird was fantastic, as was the subtle sauce, which transported me to China although I couldn’t make out all the components of it. The single turnip that was breaded with pumpernickel crumbs was pretty to look at but didn’t quite provide the counterpunch I think the duck could have used. That said, the paste of green vegetables on the side was flavorsome. 8/10.

This was paired with a lovely little Grenache wine from the south of France, which I thought was just right.

Course 9 – Earl grey crème brûlée, honeyed buckwheat, calamansi sorbet: what a fantastic petite pre-dessert. The sorbet was one of the best things of the evening (I know, I keep saying that). The earl grey brûlée was good too, but was both literally and figuratively buried beneath the bright orange sorbet. I also liked the buckwheat with it; it sort of reminded me of Scandinavian desserts I’ve had. 9/10.

This was paired with a special ko cocktail of ginger beer and amaretto which I didn’t like at first (it seemed quite watery), but grew to enjoy more as the spiciness of the ginger revealed itself.

Course 10 – Caramelized apple cake, oatmeal ice cream, burned apple sauce: the main dessert was unfortunately a slight let-down for the finale of the dinner. The little cube of apple cake was very tasty, and it went really well with the creamy oatmeal ice cream, but neither of us felt that it was an ‘amazing’ dessert, despite the efforts of the dark ‘burnt’ apple sauce to make it different. It was pleasant but not much more than that. 6/10.

Petit Four – Buttermilk, corn & mint mallow: the last bite that we had, however, was fantastic. Sweet corn flavour in a marshmallow form, with a delayed strong kick of mint which lingered on your palate. I joked that they had brushed our teeth for us. It was a fun and delightful ending to a generally great meal. 8/10.

Goodbye my sweet little metal cage

Worth a bit of clicking

A meal at ko is pretty extremely prescriptive. I’ve discussed the reservation system already, so you know they control you through that. They say on their website that dinner will take two hours and, lo and behold, when I gazed at my watch as we were finishing my meal, it had been almost exactly two hours. They decide what they will cook for you that night, and you will eat it. With such authoritarian posturing, you would think that you were their prisoners the moment you step through the metal cage facade.

But this was hardly the case on our visit. I immediately felt relaxed and loved being able to watch the chefs work in near silence in their exacting way. It reminded me of the ground floor of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, but without the pomp and circumstance (and not so many green leaves on the wall). It was a relaxed and enjoyable ambience.

At ko, one of the chefs serves you your dish and then matter-of-factly states what it is. There is no pretence – or at least that’s the idea. They will not tell you proudly how complicated it was to both conceive the dish and execute all of the processes to make it. When you ask them a question (which they don’t openly welcome by their posturing), they will answer you with simple facts and probably in one sentence. They will not look annoyed, but they will make you ask yourself why you are asking in the first place.

This is all well and fine, and I suppose it is just their schtick. But I do think it is in some ways hypocritical. Why? Well, if you read about David Chang or have seen him interviewed, you will know that one of his passions is cookbooks and the top chefs who’s food they are abut (just look at his/ko’s bathroom). He respects some of the top chefs around the world immensely and is very interested in what they are doing in all aspects of their food. Therefore, when diners at his own restaurants – and particularly at ko, which seems to be the jewel in the momofuku crown – demonstrate the same interest in passion about his (or his team’s) food, I think it is only fair that the people who present the dishes don’t just brush off the questioner (and may I note, paying diner) with a nonchalant response that only a pretty highly trained chef or knowledgeable foodie might understand without having to think about it. They shouldn’t rebuff their diners’ culinary passion as being foolish and naive, but should embrace it…at least a little more than they seem to do. That’s my two cents anyway.

But the main point about ko is that the food being served is extremely interesting, pretty flawlessly prepared, surprisingly diverse (Chang would call this ‘American’, I suppose) and engaging. And, because of the way a meal transpires at ko, I really didn’t really see it coming, but it was a brilliantly orchestrated culinary progression that left me wanting more.

All in all, it’s worth a bit of clicking…just hope Lady Luck smiles on you sooner rather than later.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: apologies…I didn’t really get a chance to peruse the wine list, but it looked pretty interesting from the little gander I did have.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at momofuku ko once, and it was for dinner*


[1] ‘Ko’ means ‘son of’ in Japanese

Momofuku Ko on Urbanspoon

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