Remember when Gucci was just a ho-hum luxury brand with logo bags that no one cared that much about it? And then Alessandro Michele shook things up with his bold and whimsical designs and suddenly made the brand very relevant again? Momofuku Ssäm Bar is similarly having its Gucci moment. It’s one of the solid restaurants in David Chang’s empire that’s been humming along on its pork buns and bo ssam, but now it’s undergone a dazzling redesign that’s all for the better.Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
232 Eighth Ave (between 21st and 22nd St)
New York, NY 10011
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.
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.
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
I personally am not a big fan of David Chang and his Momofuku empire. I think most of his Asian-inspired dishes are nothing special, but I guess there are some people out there who seem to think a little kimchee here and there is mind-blowing food innovation. But I do have to admit, the man makes a pretty damn tasty pork bun. Eating these pork buns after a three day juice cleanse was about the closest thing to heaven.