momofuku noodle bar: sexy and the city is as good as it gets
“Overhyped, overpriced and blessed by Iron Chef Morimoto in what has got to be the most flagrant abuse of ranking since the BCS screwed up college football, Momofuku is a gentrified abomination of a ramen shop with food peddled to New York diners who really ought to know better.” —me, the other day
I’ve never had an official diagnosis, but in an age where Prozac and Ritalin are household terms, I’m pretty sure I’d be considered at least mildly OCD. With this website for instance, I simply must review restaurants in the order by which I eat at them. Sure, I break this rule often enough, most notably when I travel and get excited about ramen in a new town, but as it pertains to a single destination, for the sake of a wholly irrelevant continuity, I have to go in order, not that readers would ever know.
Which means for New York City, I was supposed to cover Ippudo NY next. Then Rai Rai Ken. Then Momofuku Noodle Bar, celebrity chef David Chang’s temple to I-don’t-know-what-but-it-sure-ain’t-ramen. Okay, so I’m exaggerating. My vitriol, posted in this year’s ramen rankings, has already gotten out. But the ensuing controversy did lead to a nice hit spike, and so today, I will step right on the cracks of the pavement in my own mind and jump Momofuku ahead of the queue.
In fact, to hell with queues altogether. Certainly, no one should ever have to wait for a table at this East Village “noodle bar” (how’s that for a segue?), which packs in diners as if it’s the last ramen shop on earth. I have a feeling that for many it’s merely the first. But let me clarify. Ramen a la Chang isn’t bad, it just needs a good critical beat down, so that one day I may actually be glad to fork over fifty bucks for a bowl and a beer and some admittedly delicious steamed buns.
By the way, I’ll call a spade for what it is; the steamed pork buns at Momofuku are excellent - fragrant, flavorful compositions of tender chashu, green onion and cucumber cradled by floury white mantou, more commonly associated with Peking duck at a Chinese banquet. It must be a trend, for Ippudo NY features a similar appetizer at their bar. Chang’s, however, are sweeter, juicier, better realized.
If only the ramen were as good. The toppings in the namesake noodles are a mixed blessing; there’ an expertly poached egg that other ramen shops could do well to imitate, yet the chashu that works so well in the steamed buns takes on an almost teriyaki-like texture in the soup. A vaunted garnish of shredded Berkshire pork is startlingly bland, but at least everything is fresh and earnest. Unfortunately, the noodles themselves are the same generic yellow things found in mediocre ramen shops across the country, and the soup lacks dimension. A murky shoyu and bones concoction vaguely redolent of Chinese-style superior shark fin soup, it has its heart in the right place but is underdeveloped and lacking in umami. That Iron Chef Morimoto proclaimed Momofuku the best ramen in New York is somewhat jarring, and only further supports my theory that just because a person is from a certain country it doesn’t make them an authority on all aspects of the cuisine. With all due respect to Morimoto-san —he is a celebrated chef after all— his background is in kaiseki and sushi. Would you need Thomas Keller to recommend a hot dog stand in Tokyo? That’s a rant for another day.
Momofuku has its detractors, and there seem to be quite a few. Many decry the saltiness of the broth, but as with Chabuya in Los Angeles, it’s not so much the salt content as that there’s simply not enough going on, no other flavors to round out the soup and make it come alive. Indeed, Yasuji Morizumi’s West L.A. hipster hangout is very much analogous to David Chang’s Noodle Bar. Both have taken a historically proletarian dish and upscaled it for American diners. I would have no problem with that if only the ramen had lived up to the stellar minimalist decor and the tony price tag. When all was said and done however, two friends and I had split a $150 tab for three bowls, two sides, and a few beers. I can’t honestly sit here and pretend as though I got what I paid for.
David Chang may be a fine chef, one versed in the nuances of French or Asian-inspired fusion cooking. I couldn’t say as I’ve yet to visit Ssam Bar or Momofuku-ko. But when it comes to ramen, he’s far from fabulous, as Momofuku is high concept without the fundamentals to back it up. I’m glad the place is there, if only to raise the profile of noodling in the eyes of the American public. Chang has done a wonderful thing in that sense, elevating the dish to a level of sexiness that extends far beyond Sapporo Ichiban and the budget-conscious college student. I’d love for him to prove me wrong, but until then I’ll continue to think of him as a savvy entrepreneur rather than a noodle visionary. Is Momofuku as good as it gets? Sorry Morimoto-san, that’s a ridiculous consideration when Setagaya and Ippudo are but blocks away.
|a murky shoyu brew that is eerily reminiscent of Chinese-style shark fin superior soup, Momofuku's signature liquid is sadly underdeveloped, straightforward and lacking in umami.||6|
|why is a tony restaurant like this using the same packaged yellow egg noodles that average shops use for bowls a half or a third of the price? i was going to give these the standard generic 4, but i'm docking a point simply for the context.||3|
|a properly poached egg is momofuku's saving grace. the toppings are fresh and well, but the chashu is incongruous and teriyaki chicken-like in texture, while the shredded Berkshire pork is bland,||5|
|momofuku's steamed pork buns are a peking duck-style mantou sandwich standout, while the glazed chicken wings are somewhat less successful and rather unremarkable in execution. they have raw oysters and a whole bunch of other stuff. stick to the sides, and go elsewhere for your slurping.||8|
|momofuku noodle bar is a majestic, gorgeous space. a triumph of blonde wood and unforgiving right angles that harkens both to modernism and a north atlantic coastal rusticism. but this isn't architectural digest and i'm just kind of talking out of my butt. i love it anyway. too bad the noodles blow.||9|
|david chang-san, you've managed to upscale ramen and raise its perception in the american public consciousness. kudos for making ramen sexy. now if only you can put together a proper bowl of the stuff. i'd love for you to prove me wrong. would you personally prepare my mine like you did for iron chef morimoto? yep, that's right, man! i'm calling you out!||6|
171 First Ave.,