Sunday, March 10, 2013

Momofuku Ko-My-God

We just celebrated our fifteenth anniversary. FIFTEEN. WHAT?? It's crazy that I've spent almost one-third of my life married to The Boy, but there you go. We're still having fun, even during the medical crappiness of the last couple of years.

So how to mark the event? We left it kind of late to do anything big, partly because I was due to start the new ritual of weekly chemo and twice-a-day radiation and we didn't know how I'd feel. As it turned out, I was doing okay, so with just over a week to go, we found a hotel in New York and booked train tickets for the following weekend.

The big question, of course: Where to eat?

Scoping around for something new, I checked in with our friend Eric, who a) reminded us that he and his wife had recently had a fab meal at Momofuku Ko and b) pointed out that reservations for our Saturday night would open up the following day.

Okay, sold.

In theory, at least.

The deal with Ko is that they have 12 seats — not tables, seats — which become available ten days ahead at 10am. The trick is to be online at 9:58am and hit "refresh" constantly.

So I was. Click, click, click. Refresh, refresh, refresh. One minute to go ... 9:59:48 ... click ...

Ten o'clock. Click.

No availability.


Yep, them's the breaks. Luckily, I also knew to keep clicking; people cancel, spaces open up. And lo, after only another 30 minutes of hitting "refresh," I saw an opening. Click. Got it.

(And then another couple of heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled minutes where I had to fill in contact details and give a credit card number while a timer counted down 120 seconds. Aaagh, the number's wrong! Aagh, I can't spell my own name! This, it seems, is why I'm not cut out for the bomb squad.)

So, after a fun day in Manhattan, including a lovely pub lunch at Jones Wood Foundry (bangers and mash! Steak and kidney pie! Listening to New Yorkers concerned about the contents of toad in the hole!) and a romantic walk through a rainy, misty, almost-deserted Central Park, we headed to the East Village.

Okay, a disclaimer now: Ko is known for discouraging photography. As the website puts it:
may i take pictures?

Which would hurt less if I hadn't found 600+ Ko photos on Flickr.

But whatevs. No lovely food shots here, but a few observations to give you a sense of the experience.

The room is long and narrow, and dominated by a counter running down the middle. On one side are 12 stools; on the other, three guys with sharp knives and a lot of stainless steel.

The music is eclectic — Wilco, Pink Floyd, NWA ("it's the big boss man's iPod," we're told) — though loud; we have to shout to communicate allergies to the staff, and we don't always hear all the details of each dish as they're presented.

That, combined with the fear of being yelled at for pulling out a phone, means we don't take notes. And it's hard to remember all ten courses plus snacky extras.

Still, there was:

Light-as-air chicharrón dusted with huitlacoche;
Melty Spanish mackerel contrasted with pickled shallots and blood orange;
Tiny, delicate shrimp with a texture I can only describe as creamy, something I've never encountered before;
A rich potato chowder with soft littleneck clams and andouille (just outside my current capacity for spicy food, but still fabulous);
Venison tartare, served under sunchoke and Brussels sprout leaves and over fermented black beans. No, shut up, it was insane. The venison was like maguro in texture, the beans added a deeper meaty angle, the leaves gave a crunchy foil to the soft flesh. The only thing even more better was the egg.

Ohhh, the egg. Soft-boiled, smoked, served with a generous spoonful of caviar on top of buttered onions. Simple, right? Oh look, here's a recipe. And a better picture.

The other dish often cited in discussions of Ko is the lychees with Riesling geleé topped with chilled, shaved foie. It's like a rich, grown-up, sophisticated sundae. Sadly, by the time it appears for us, I'm dragging — it's well past my bedtime — so I can't give it the full attention it deserves.

And I hardly touch the last savory course, a tender piece of duck with baby turnip and berries. Which makes me feel bad, especially as the poor guy firing up the first batch accidentally set the whole pan alight and had to start over.

Oh, a word on the chefs. There are some jobs I'm just not cut out for: teacher, nurse, anything in sales. Add to that: Cooking in a tiny restaurant where you're almost nose-to-nose with the diners. These guys had an incredible Zen-like approach, calmly, methodically prepping and plating, slicing translucent slivers of fish, using tweezers to pick out the perfect microgreen garnishes, trimming meat down to its tastiest essence, while dealing with distracting customer chit-chat. I'd last ten minutes before I was throwing plates across the room.

Desserts were lovely — a coconut-lime sorbet with meringue and banana and a sour-orange sorbet with panna cotta, Earl Grey and caramel — but seemingly not as creative as the mains. Which reminded us of dinner at Rosanjin, in which a dinner of dishes in a formal, traditional Japanese style concluded with ... cheesecake and strawberry ice cream. So maybe it's a thing.

After about two and a half hours, we rolled out, tired and full and happy. Ko goes in our Top Ten Meals of All Time.

And now I'm back to sucking scrambled eggs and milkshakes. At least I still have tastebuds, for now. Once they're gone, I'll entertain myself with looking at photos of dinner at Ko.

Other people's photos, anyway.

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