The Bar at Momofuku Ko in East Village

The older I get, the more I’ve come to appreciate bar dining. Bar dining has come a long way from uncomfortable stool seats and limited “bar only” menus. Many restaurants now offer their full menus at the bar, with coat and purse hooks included. And now that I no longer have the luxury or patience for long, drawn-out dinners, the efficiency and relative swiftness of bar dining hold even more appeal. One of the best places for bar dining in the city is at Momofuku Ko, David Chang’s two-Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant in the East Village. It’s better known for its seated tasting menu experience, but it also operates a small bar near the entrance that offers an interesting, a la carte menu that changes each day. You get to benefit from the talents of a highly skilled, fine dining kitchen without having to pay the sky high prices or having to sit through the whole experience.

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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

Fuku Fried Chicken Sandwich

I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly eating the spicy fried chicken sandwich from Fuku, David Chang’s new fried chicken restaurant, with an open mind. My original plan was to try the vegetarian burger at Superiority Burger, but upon arrival I discovered that it wasn’t open for lunch, and Fuku reluctantly became the fallback due to its close proximity in the East Village. I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of this spicy gut bomb resting in my stomach on a hot summer day, giving me a bad case of the meat sweats, but I figured if Chang could work his magic on some steamed pork buns, maybe he could do the same with the classic chicken sandwich.

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standing room only at fuku

You can clearly tell that Chang is banking on Fuku to be his mass franchise behemoth. Everything about the restaurant is designed with quick turnover and huge volume in mind. There aren’t any seats, only standing counters so that people don’t hold up precious dollars with lingering or loitering. The chicken sandwiches aren’t made to order, instead, they are cooked all throughout lunch service and kept warm in aluminum bags beforehand. The sandwiches are usually pretty fresh, though, since customers are continuously coming in and out of the door, and replenishment is constant. The menu is extremely limited, with a chicken sandwich, French fries, a salad, and a prepackaged Momofuku Milk Bar cookie as the only food options, as to be easily replicated and to optimize buying on scale. It’s classic McDonald’s franchising 101.

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the spicy chicken sandwich, more chicken than sandwich

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adding some extra hot sauce

I don’t mind that this restaurant is so obviously profit-driven, as long as the sandwich lives up to expectations. Unfortunately, the few minutes that the sandwich hung out in the bag made a huge difference to quality. The bag ended up creating moisture, which caused the potato bun to shrivel up and become soggy. It didn’t help that the ratio of bun to chicken fillet was extremely off to a comical degree, and the shrinkage from the moisture exacerbated the proportions. Seeing as how the bun was ruined, I was banking on the fried chicken fillet to blow me away, but it really didn’t. It was very crispy and spicy, which was a plus, but the underlying chicken meat was way too greasy and fatty. Several points throughout my meal, I broke off pieces of breading only to find squishy, sebaceous bits rather than proper chicken meat lying beneath. If I’m going to spend valuable calories on a fried chicken sandwich, it better be spent on meat, not breading and fat, and needless to say I declined to finish the entire thing.

The French fries were an even bigger disappointment. These weren’t crispy shoestring fries, they were the clunky, soft potato wedges of my youth, served to me by the bored lunch ladies behind a glass counter. The wedges were also extremely salted and caked on with a paprika rub that had me reaching for 5 cups of water. Usually I can never say no to a French fry, even wilted ones, so the fact that I could draw the line at 5 was a testament to how unappealing they were.

There were plenty of people lining up for a midday sandwich and raving about it, so I’m sure Fuku will be on track to its aspirations of building out another outlet or two, and Chang recently opened a branch in Midtown for the corporate crowd. But a fried chicken empire on par with a Chick-fil-A? Yes, that massive fried chicken steak is a novelty that will keep the Instagram hash tags coming, and David Chang’s name alone will bring in the traffic, but I’m not so sure if Chang’s fried chicken sandwich kingdom will come.

163 1st Ave (between 10th and 11th St)
New York, NY 10003