Momofuku Nishi

entrance to momofuku nishi
entrance to momofuku nishi

You can’t tell by the name, and not really by the food either, but Momofuku Nishi is an Italian restaurant. This being a David Chang restaurant, it’s intentionally not really as straightforward as that. In a Grub Street article, Chang was quoted as saying, “Trying not to use Italian ingredients to make Italian food is sort of the golden rule.” So instead of pecorino cheese to make cacio e pepe, he utilizes a fermented chickpea miso, and instead of red sauce on the menu there’s a lot of XO sauce. Asian but not Asian. Italian.

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the characteristic momofuku wooden counters and backless chairs
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a can of bantam cider. surprisingly good.
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the chitarra noodles, the star of nishi

Maybe it’s what we ordered, but I felt like the food at Nishi wasn’t Italian at all. It was all very Asian, and derivatives of very familiar Asian noodle dishes. The chitarra was definitely modeled after champong, a spicy Korean seafood noodle soup, as well as nakji bokkeum, a stir-fried octopus dish also from Korea. It was absolutely delicious and my favorite thing that I tried, and frankly I’m glad that it was pretty traditional tasting and not very Italian.

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clams grand lisboa

The curiously named clams grand lisboa was also very similar to the pippies dish that I had at Marigold in Sydney. Chang said that it was inspired by one of his favorite hangouts in Sydney, so maybe he was referring to the same place! The Momofuku version tones down the robust sweet and savory sauce that dresses the little clams and uses an al dente chow mein instead of crunchy noodles. Unfortunately, these two elements are essential to the dish, especially when they both converge so that the noodles soften underneath the influence of the sauce, and so this reinterpretation felt a little incomplete and not quite satisfying.  Even if I didn’t have the original pippies dish as a frame of reference, I don’t think my opinion would have been different. It just didn’t stand out in any way, other than being the most expensive noodle dish on the menu.

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ceci e pepe

The only Italian sounding pasta dish that was consistent with Chang’s new Italian vision was the ceci e pepe. It had the look and feel of the original, but with the chickpea miso, it had a slightly sweetish tinge about it. The noodles also felt fatter, the width being akin to the lo mein noodles from a takeout box. It was a very strange and interesting experience feeling that sensation of Panda Express and traditional trattoria all at the same time. It created new associations with this type of pasta in a good way, and I thought this was another standout from the menu.

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bitter greens and vegetarian xo

I had zero expectations for the bitter greens side dish. I thought it might be similar to a traditional stir-fried bok choy or Chinese broccoli, but it’s definitely in its own category. On the outside it looks like a normal Western garden salad, but on the inside there’s a lot of Asian breaking loose. There was more to crunch on than meets the eye, a little bit of what tasted like roasted noodles or barley and maybe some dried fishy bits, all the more made better with the incredible vegetarian XO dressing. If garden variety is a negative term, they haven’t tried this bowl of green vegetables.

Gratuity is already included in all of the prices on the menu, so don’t be too put off by the $32 pasta that you’re paying for. Although come to think of it, even from an all inclusive perspective, that price did seem pretty steep. Nishi is definitely a high end restaurant, even if the uncomfortable backless seating and communal tables suggest otherwise, although that’s pretty consistent with the David Chang experience.


Momofuku Nishi
232 Eighth Ave (between 21st and 22nd St)
New York, NY 10011
(646) 518-1919

Vietnamese at Soothsayer

Our goal Friday night was to walk into Babu Ji and put our names down for a table, thinking we would probably wait an hour for it. Turns out the wait was more like 2 hours. Time for a back up plan.

It was a bit of a challenge trying to find other options all the way over on Ave B. There are a ton of scrappy little bars and restaurants in the area, but we wanted a restaurant that wasn’t so Alphabet City-ish. Something like a Hearth, which also had a 2 hour wait, or a Flinders Lane, which miraculously did have availability. We wanted to try something new, so when a waiter at Babu Ji tipped us off to a new Vietnamese restaurant called Soothsayer that had just opened on Ave A, we followed his lead.

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wine on tap

We were relieved to find a pretty space with a decent atmosphere that had plenty of seats available. I was a little thrown off by the fact that Soothsayer looked more like a stylish neighborhood wine bar than a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. Should I order something more fusion or something more traditional? There were options for both on the menu. I figured I should trust the soothsayer’s vision of a future where a banh mi “burger” and taro “tots” can comfortably coexist with traditional lemongrass grilled beef.

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the taro “tots” with vietnamese aioli, pork floss and basil
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the bánh mì “burger”

For the most part, I liked what I was seeing in the Soothsayer’s crystal ball. The little nuggets of starchy, fatty carbs that were the taro tots was the most exciting discovery, so much so that we ordered another. I was hoping for more from the bahn mi burger, but it didn’t taste that much different from a regular banh mi sandwich.  Even though it wasn’t a revelation, it was perfectly solid, and I couldn’t complain about the juicy patty with the sweet relish on top.

chicken wings with five spice, tempura and ginger
chicken wings with five spice, tempura and ginger
duck sausage fried rice
duck sausage fried rice

The chicken wings, on the other hand, probably could have used a little editing. They were clumsily drowning in too much batter, rendering the chicken part of the wing irrelevant. I also didn’t love the fried rice, which utilized Western ingredients like duck sausage and apple in lieu of lap cheong or basic chicken. It was too salty and overseasoned, with the flavors of the sausage and the smoked chicken muddying together and weighing down the rice, which should be lightly salted with a sprinkle or two of MSG.

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grilled beef with lemongrass, rice vermicelli and herbs
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morning glory greens with fermented bean curd, garlic and chili

The fusion dishes are the way to go, as the more authentic offerings can’t quite capture the hearty, homey flavors that you’d get at a traditional place. I wanted the grilled beef to punch me with its fish sauce and lemongrass flavors, but it was more like a light jab. The stir-fried morning glory also felt a little under-dressed, seemingly made by the hands of a cautious Vietnamese grandchild than by those of an experienced Vietnamese grandmother. The soothsayer’s culinary future wasn’t totally perfect, but I’m for the most part sold on it.


Soothsayer
171 Avenue A (between 10th and 11th St)
New York, NY 10009
(212) 475-3171

 

 

Bara, a French Japanese Tavern

Sometimes my meals revolve less around food and more around drinking. Oftentimes these tend to be the best meals, because with each drink, my inhibitions go down and I start ordering everything off the menu. Oh sure, we absolutely need to order 10 different appetizers, otherwise we’ll have horrible hangovers in the morning! I’m pretty sure two would have sufficed, but it’s so much fun noshing on several interesting things at once!

Bara, a newish French Japanese tavern in the East Village, is the type of place to go when you’re in the mood to get a little tipsy and try a little bit of everything. The cocktails here are very strong–my mezcal based drink the Koji was especially potent–and with each sip you’ll find yourself ordering additional plates of pork belly. Which you should, because these crispy, juicy bits of stratified pork meat and belly fat are heavenly. If you’re not looking to go whole hog here, a good, lighter alternative is the mackerel tataki. Imagine a ceviche with an especially fishy taste, balanced out by some ponzu citrus and puffed rice pieces. And then you can swerve on over to the fat side again with an incredibly rich artichoke gratin dip.

pork belly
pork belly
mackerel tataki
mackerel tataki

It’s easy to fill up on a nibble here and there, but you absolutely must save room for the black sea bass, which in my opinion is Bara’s signature dish. The whole fish arrives looking very impressive and imposing on a huge plate, sporting a death stare that dares you to break into its glistening, crackling skin. But break it you must, because underneath all that skin are fleshy, chunky pieces of heavenly filet that need to be smothered in the irresistible pool of soy-based tare sauce beneath.

whole roasted black bass
whole roasted black bass
whole roasted black bass, take 2
whole roasted black bass, take 2

If you don’t like making eye contact with your food, some less confrontational choices are the duck breast and the buckwheat noodles. The duck breast is plump and juicy, with a perfectly seared skin all around, and the tea sauce enhances the succulent, savory sensations of the meat. The buckwheat noodles are a more balanced exercise in decadence–overall the dish feels very light, and the noodles are only ever so seasoned, but then it shows a little leg with some sweet short rib and two juicy prawns. And whatever main you end up ordering, you have to order the side of brussels sprouts, which are roasted in this amazing fish sauce, a side so addicting that I nearly finished off two group orders. Whoops.

buckwheat noodles with prawns and short rib
buckwheat noodles with prawns and short rib
duck breast with tea and sunflower
duck breast with tea and sunflower

This tiny restaurant, which recently took over the old Prima space, is still very much under the radar. I was a little worried when I stopped by on a weekend–the place was nearly empty, and I didn’t think the restaurant was deserving of that. The food really hits the spot and the price point is very reasonable, plus the cocktails are strong and delicious. Here’s hoping that this little neighborhood gem perseveres.


Bara
58 E. 1st St (between 2nd and 1st Ave)
New York, NY 10003
(917) 639-3197

Bara Restaurant

French-Vietnamese at Rouge et Blanc

Rouge et Blanc fits the label “neighborhood restaurant” to a tee. You probably wouldn’t go out of your way to eat here, much less even have heard of it, unless you lived in Soho. It occupies a small strip of Macdougal St alongside other low-key local spots like 12 Chairs. It’s the complete antithesis of the white washed brick, Edison-bulb lit, rustic chic restaurants that seem to be in vogue as of late. It has that Old World charm about it, more English pub than hip city hot spot. And you could probably walk in and get a seat any time you wanted. 2 hour wait at Blue Ribbon? The Dutch completely packed? There’s always a table at Rouge et Blanc!

Rouge et Blanc specializes in French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine, although it would be more accurate to say that the dishes are inherently Western classics, and the seasonings are Asian. The fried brussel sprouts here, for instance, are something you’d find at many farm-to-table restaurants, but not with the salty, funky hint of tangy fish sauce emanating from the Korean chili vinaigrette. I personally found the seasoning on the brussel sprouts a little too salty, but I did appreciate the texture.

rouge et blanc - fried brussel sprouts
fried brussel sprouts

The crispy squid, a riff on calamari and Chinese salt and pepper squid, similarly was prepared well–the thin layer of corn meal batter was nice and crispy–but again, the sauce was a little overdone. I’m not quite sure what was in there, it was reminiscent of a dark hoisin or tonkatsu sauce, but it was heavy-handed and overpowered the squid meat.

rouge et blanc - salt and pepper squid
crispy squid

I would say for the most part, the food at Rouge et Blanc is competent and thoughtfully prepared, but not particularly mindblowing. It’s like watching an episode of New Girl–it’s mildly amusing, maybe really funny at certain times, but it’s nowhere near the level of Friends. The house-made thick noodles, which resembled a hybrid of fettuccini and spicy dan dan noodles, and the pork and duck-filled scallion rice crepes, were very pleasant but ultimately receded from my memory, sort of like all of Season 2.

rouge et blanc - thick noodles
house-made thick noodles with ground pork, cucumber and scallions
rouge et blanc - vietnamese crepe
scallion rice crêpe with crispy duck and pork

The Vietnamese beef cheeks was the one true standout, a dish that reveals Rouge et Blanc has the potential to transcend neighborhood standy status. The cheeks were remarkably tender and well seasoned, and wrapping them up in the accompanying naan-like flatbread, with an extra dip in the meat juices an absolutely necessary course of action, was extremely satisfying. The texture of the papaya salad, as well as its acidity and sourness, added a nice, additional layer of depth to the dish.

rouge et blanc - beef cheeks
vietnamese beef cheeks

There’s still a lot to like about Rouge et Blanc, even if perhaps, overall, the food doesn’t quite hold your interest. That Old World charm I referred to really adds to the romantic atmosphere of this place, and you do feel like you’re transported back to a different time, one where men stood when women left the table, and where dinner was truly a time to linger and unwind for as long as you wanted. Let everyone else chase down the latest restaurant and shove each other aside for a seat, you can actually enjoy yourself in these chic Indochine chambers.


Rouge et Blanc
48 Macdougal St. (between Houston and Prince)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 260-5757

Rouge et Blanc

Tuome Gets High End Asian Fusion Right

I was a little skeptical when I first stepped into Tuome, a restaurant in the East Village that describes itself as New American with Asian influences. Was this another one of those cultural hybrid places that would crank out pastrami egg rolls or kimchee pizza, interesting in concept but a bit half-baked in execution? It didn’t help that this was the whitest restaurant ever with a name that seemed purely Italian. The place was straight up farm-to-table Brooklyn, and 99% of the guests around us were not Asian. And the strange playlist of classic 80s rock frankly annoyed me–whoever makes the decision to play Tom Petty, Pink Floyd and Billy Joel in succession clearly lacks good judgement. I felt like I was waiting for a really bad 80s business school party to get started.

Luckily the poor taste in music was not an indication of the extremely competent cooking behind the scenes. Tuome is one of those few restaurants that gets high-end Asian fusion right. Chef Thomas Chen, an Eleven Madison Park alum, incorporates different regional ingredients and seasonings because they actually complement each other, and not because they would be confrontational and edgy. And more impressively, he manages to preserve the homey, comforting flavor profiles of the original Asian dishes that they were inspired by. Remember when growing up, your mom would make kalbi chim, and the way the juices of the meat flowed into the rice and became fully absorbed by the grains made for the most amazing meal ever? You will undergo this Proustian food journey many times over at Tuome.

The side of rice, which sounds pretty mundane and unremarkable, is one of the best things on the menu. In presentation, it resembles the lotus leaf sticky rice wraps that you get during dim sum, but it is packed with tons more flavor. These are sticky, glutinous grains fully saturated with delicious duck fat, and accented with the tangy, arresting flavors of Chinese sausage. There were also ribbons of kale that reeled everything in so that the rice didn’t become too rich and salty. I always try to get a little dainty with white rice, like, oh, I don’t need so many carbs, but all caution went out the window, and I literally inhaled this.

rice with kale, chinese sausage and duck fat
rice with kale, chinese sausage and duck fat

Is it crazy that I also swooned over the deviled eggs? Deviled eggs is like the sad, ugly sister on an hors d’oeuvre platter, but Tuome gives her a very glamorous, Sabrina-like makeover. The ho-hum, plain Jane boiled egg surface gets jazzed up with some golden Panko crumbs, and the yolk develops a sassy personality of sweet and spicy heat. It’s a worldly and well-rounded nugget of protein that will impress even the most blase of palates.

eggs, deviled, crispy and chili
eggs, deviled, crispy and chili

The oxtail spring roll wasn’t rhapsodically delicious, but it was an extremely solid effort. It basically tasted like a really good taquito. The filling in a traditional spring roll tends to be light, ground beef with chopped vegetables and noodles, but the one we ate here had more in common with its Mexican cousin, as it was filled to the brim purely with meat, specifically oxtail and bone marrow. Despite the rich fillings, the spring roll surprisingly wasn’t that heavy, and the light cumin sauce that came on the side served to brighten the dish.

This was all building up to the highly anticipated pig out for two, a dish that celebrates gluttony in all of its glory by serving crispy cubes of Berkshire pork, with fatty, crackly skin on, that dissolve into amazing liquefied pig fat. In case you’re worried that you might keel over from the potently rich bite, a bowl of tasty spicy peanut noodles are available for you to chase the pork with. The perfectly al dente noodles and the smooth and creamy peanut sauce will bring you back to the days when eating fettuccini and a PBJ could make your whole day so much better. The comfort foods of your childhood and adult life crash head on so that you can simultaneously regress and elevate your palate all at the same time.

pig out (for two) with persimmon and walnuts on the side
pig out (for two) with persimmon and walnuts on the side
spicy peanut noodles
spicy peanut noodles

By the time dinner was over, the 80s music was still playing, but my irritation with it was a thing of the past. Sitting through tracks of Bono is a small price to pay for eating the inventive and tasty fusion cuisine here. Whether you want to relive your mother’s cooking or take a walk down college Chinese take-out lane, but in a much nicer and interesting setting, there’s a lucid food dream for everyone.


Tuome
536 E. 5th St (between Ave A and B)
New York, NY 10009
(646) 833-7811

tuome