Frej Your Mind — The Rest Will Follow

Published: May 22, 2012 on The BespokeBlog

Frej
90 Wythe Avenue (at North 11th Street)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Website
Bookings by email only: info@frejnyc.com

Frej is the first of the new-wave, Scandinavian-influenced restaurant in New York that really delivers on flavor and atmosphere — it is a pleasure for all the senses. Given the constraints facing the tiny operation, this is no mean feat. Hopefully they will be able to carry on in a permanent form in the longer-term.

Frej (pronounced ‘fray’), the Williamsburg pop-up that only opens for three nights a week in a schizophrenic venue that wants to be many things to many hipsters, is the first New York restaurant of its ilk that fires on all cylinders. While influence has clearly been drawn from the Danish restaurant with a hat-trick to its name, Frej defies its own transient nature and distinctly feels like it is in the right place, at the right time … as Sam Elliot says in The Big Lebowski, it just “fits right in there.”

The two chefs — one raised in Sweden, one in Sydney, and both formerly of Corton — have come up with the perfect equation. The formula? It’s “5×2 = >$45,” meaning: they advertise five courses on their menu, but in reality you’ll likely get about ten dishes. Given the quality of the food, this is the most preposterously great value in tri-state fine dining you’re likely to find. But the $45 price of entry is only one of the reasons to go now.

You see, now that they’ve finally been discovered and reviewed by the big boys, it will be even harder to snag a coveted seat at the seven-table, Monday-Wednesday night restaurant that is bookable only via email. But you owe it to yourself to try. The food and overall dining experience really is that good.

If you had to label the food, you could call it New Yorkic™, as it combines the sensibilities of New Nordic cuisine with the produce of the New York area. And, they were so taken with Jane Herold’s earthenware, they use it exclusively in the restaurant. Sure, it resembles the now oft-duplicated dinnerware of that Danish restaurant, but it’s handmade in New York. Just like the food.

Operating out of a kitchen that is literally the size of your average closet, with very minimal equipment and no assistance in sight, these two chefs are cooking the food they like to eat and operating by their own rules. The result is subtle, yet intensely flavored dishes that are minimally plated but wholly memorable.

Sunchoke, Pear, Elderflower & Beef Liver

Highs from my meal in late March included a dish of “sunchokes, pear, elderflower and beef liver,” in which the ingredient listed last provided a tantalizing and binding flavor that had real staying power. Also stunning was a non-advertised course of “periwinkle, pork jowl, cabbage purée, pickled kohlrabi and bittercress.”

Soft Poached Egg, Scallop, Porcini & Cauliflower

But my favorite dishes of the night included one featuring the most translucent, sweet and succulent Maine shrimp I’ve tasted, a seriously divine fried veal sweetbread dish, with that trendy, orange-skinned Scandi rockstar (sea-buckthorn), padded out nicely with rosehip and miner’s lettuce. The cooking of the sweetbreads was perfectly judged, as were the textures surrounding it — something they pay very close attention to in their cooking. I was also enamored by a surprise dessert of (quite firm) goat milk custard that was flanked by seaweed shortbread crumbs, poached pear, allspice and crisped pear skin. It was one of the few savory desserts I have really savored.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin

The reason nearly all of the dishes are triumphant is that the chefs use a small number of high-quality, local suppliers and only select the best ingredients. Here, ‘best’ does not mean the most expensive produce, but rather off-cuts of meat and under-loved vegetables from which they will be able to tease out new and complex flavors, and that won’t cost and arm and a leg (although, in some cases, it may actually be leg they’re after).

Cardamom Parfait, Raspberry & Walnut

Still, for $45 a meal (excluding drinks, tax and service), I’m not quite sure how they can be making any money out of what is essentially a ten-course tasting menu of seriously considered small plates. This is likely the reason that Frej is only a pop-up … at some point, someone will be smart enough to snag this duo’s dynamic food, and help them open a more traditional restaurant. Let’s just hope they are able to stay true to their vision and the roots they’ve now firmly planted.

The list of all the dishes from my meal can be found below, and the current menu is available on their site. I don’t know if they always dish out two times what they promise, but if you happen to get a reservation, hopefully you’ll get lucky twice.

A word to the wine: they stock a full bar, and have a nice, concise wine list consisting of about ten versatile wines that pair nicely with a variety of flavors and range in price between $29-$49/bottle. We had a $39/bottle Loire red blend of Pineau d’Aunis and Gamay (called ‘Poivre et Sel’ from Olivier Lemasson), which was very pleasant for the duration of the meal.

Advertised Menu
– Smoked brook trout, egg yolk, dill, chickweed, rye bread
– Sunchoke, pear, elderflower, beef liver
– Soft poached egg, scallop, porcini, cauliflower
– Beef cooked in hay, rutabaga, apple cider
– Cardamom parfait, raspberry, walnut

Additional Courses Served
– Periwinkle, pork jowl, cabbage puree, pickled kohlrabi, bittercress
– Fried veal sweetbread, sea-buckthorn, rosehip, miner’s lettuce
– Maine shrimp, baby potatoes, sprat milk, bee pollen
– Skate, fennel puree, pickled baby carrots, pearl onions, bronze fennel fronds
– Goat milk custard, seaweed shortbread, poached pear, allspice, pear skin

Photo creditall photos are courtesy of Spanish Hipster (thank you).

*Note: I have dined at Frej once; our party paid for the entire cost of the meal; we were not given any ‘extras’ that other tables weren’t given also (to our knowledge); and were not known ahead-of-time by the house*

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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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