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

Dinner with your Doggie at Empire Diner

We just adopted a new doggie–he’s a poodle / bichon frise mix named Butters! We are super excited to welcome this little guy to the family and can’t wait to take him along on our food adventures…

meet butters. wearing an e-collar post a delicate surgery...
meet butters. wearing an e-collar post a delicate surgery…

…except we can’t. New Yorkers love their dogs, but great restaurants, unfortunately, don’t love them back. Due to the health code, you are not allowed to bring dogs into a restaurant, so a dinner at Daniel or Le Bernardin will have to be sans pet. Some restaurants do make exceptions for outdoor seating, but again, it’s hard to know which ones do, and usually they are the more low-key, neighborhood spots. There are some obvious places like the Barking Dog restaurant on UES that welcome pets, but when was the last time that anyone raved about the food at Barking Dog? Outdoor food festivals like the Hester Street Fair and the Dumbo location of Smorgasburg allow you to bring pets and try interesting food, but that’s only if the weather permits…and as we head into late October, that time is running out very quickly.

Luckily, Empire Diner is a restaurant that both you and Fido will enjoy. You will have to sit outside, which is not a problem on a cool, fall day (and again, those days are numbered). The friendly staff will set Fido up with a bowl of water, and they don’t mind at all if you feed him your own doggie treats. You, on the other hand, get to eat some great American classics like pork chop and cobb salad with your best furry friend safely in sight, not tied sadly to a fire hydrant or tree a block away.

Diner food tends to be hearty, comforting and classic, and Empire Diner definitely pays homage to these traditions by going all in with big flavors. My cobb salad here was like cobb salad on steroids–instead of dainty bacon bits, you get these nice, plump pieces of cubed bacon clearly marbled with a generous layer of fat, AND, on top of it, a serving of tender duck confit. It’s not like the other parts of the salad were light, the creamy avocado and chickpeas added to the extreme depth of this dish. If you’re trying to order a salad to keep things light, this is not the one to get! But for a very refined and updated take on an American classic that won’t leave you hungry, than Empire Diner’s rendition is like no other.

empire - cobb salad
cobb salad with bacon, duck confit, avocado, tomatoes and chickpeas

The pork on pork chop arrived, looking like it had just been removed from a spitfire grill and ladled with some beans for a cowboys’ stockyard dinner. The cowboys maybe tended too long to the herd and not enough to the meat, because the pork chop almost bordered on being too dry, but it helped to have the savory beans and juicy pork bits surrounding the meat. Despite it being slightly dry, a great pork chop is a classic, crowd-pleasing dish, which explains how it’s been able to sustain its appeal from the Wild West to modern day times.

empire - pork chop
pork chop with crispy pancetta, cranberry beans and kale

Empire Diner took a little too much creative license with the matzoh ball marrow soup. The fact that the soup had marrow in it should have been a red flag, since I love matzoh ball soup for its comforting simplicity. This was chicken soup for the decadent soul–a broth that was oddly and distractingly tart, and obviously a tad too rich with the presence of the bone marrow. That soothing sensation that I love so much was missing, and sadly I left this dish unfinished.

empire - matzoh ball soup
matzoh ball marrow soup with root vegetables, poached chicken and marrow bone

It was a great feeling being able to enjoy a serious meal with interesting flavors while playing with my friend’s dog Marlow. Pet ownership comes with sacrifice, and going out to eat wherever you want with your furry companion is one of them. A meal at Empire Diner is an exception where the pet owner can have it all! I’m definitely going to bring Butters here one day, and in general, I’ll be on the lookout for dog friendly places. Apparently Cookshop allows dogs as well, which is exciting because the food there is very good and much sought after. Look back for future posts on where else you and your doggie can eat together!

Empire Diner
210 10th Ave (between 22nd and 23rd St)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 596-7523