David Chang has come a very long way in a very short time from his first modest noodle shop in the East Village circa 2004. Today he's a culinary rockstar, his name a powerful brand that's managed to continually wow finicky New York City palates with a string of successes: Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku SsÃ¤m Bar, Momofuku Ko, the 12-seater awarded two Michelin stars, Momofuku Milk Bar, MÃ¡ PÃªche, and a Momofuku Cookbook. He even made Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People (2010) an
d played himself on the critically acclaimed Treme, the HBO series based on the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans.
Giddy comes close to describing the goose-bumpy feeling of being in his magical midst at the Shangri-La Hotel. But whichever Momofuku you opt for (Noodle Bar, Nikai, Daisho or Shoto, a tasting-menu counter), the excitement of Chang's food lies not only in its artful execution, but in the skillful way he manages to package all of the elements of fine dining in such an accessible, unpretentious manner. Think Parkdale meets Alain Ducasse, only a heckuva lot cheaper.
Momofuku Daisho is all about understated luxury that somehow feels effortlessly cool. Finally a fun, hip environment without an Edison bulb in sight. Fantastic floor to ceiling windows overlooking University Avenue provide the perfect backdrop for a meal that awes with every chew, beginning with a complimentary plate of house made pickles that you might mistake for Strub's half sour dills only with a spicy kick. And even if a jar of kimchi ($7) seems a bit over fermented, like orange juice that's gone just slightly off, the combo of ingredients is bang-on for this Korean delicacy.
But the raison d'Ãªtre for Daisho are for the pork buns ($10). These peameal bacon beauties, a Chang signature dish, with an egg yolk mustard are like nothing you've ever tasted at the St. Lawrence Market. He may not have invented them, but he may as well have. And few dishes are as dramatic as the apple soup ($9). Poured out of a teapot a la table, the bowl filled with manageable chunks of sunchoke slowly submerge in a velvety-thick melange of apple, bee pollen and balconville tincture. It might sound like a homeopathic immune booster, and probably is, but it could possibly be the most sophisticated soup since Susur's tomato essence. Watching the pollen slowly bleed through is like time-lapse photography with every spoonful.
Few can do grits ($16) like executive sous chef Matt Blondin (former Acadia chef). Just getting the right consistency, like a perfect risotto, is rare enough, but its entirely another to be treated to the most perfectly cooked shrimp sharing the stage with rustic corn and enough earthy chanterelles to feed a family of hobbits. Our extremely capable and affable server tells us that the cabbage ($12) dish rocks. In my books anyone with such tasteful tattoos is to be trusted. And we are not let down. Much like a lasagna, only instead of noodles, layered cabbage leaves with crumbled pork, pine nuts and pok pok vinegar gives this under appreciated ruffage a sophisticated and sexy new image.
Alas, there is a minor disappointment with the apple and pork sausage ($11). Firstly, it's not made in-house; it comes from Sausage King with Kozlik's triple mustard on the side. As good as this coil of meat is, compared to the other display of dishes thus far it feels a bit underdressed, the presentation feeling more like they filled in a blank instead of creating something truly memorable.
Of course Chang is also famous for his fried chicken. But without advance ordering with your reservation ($125 for two whole fried chickens served family-style; meant for large groups) you'll be s*it out of luck. But fume you won't for your shortsightedness, as long as you can order a Harrison Co-op chicken ball ($26) to make up for it. The highly seasoned bird is rolled and pressed like a pork roast and dotted with sheets of mole (a molecular touch via Wylie Dufresne's wd-50 in NYC), a liberal egg daubing and purple-edged carrot petals makes this exquisitely beautiful plate look just like the Thanksgiving dinner the Romney's must have. Chicken never looked so gosh-darn fancy.
Other of Daisho's large format meals include a beef ribeye ($600) and desserts, too. The pear trifle ($29) is Titanic in size. The only sweet course small enough for two is an insane chocolate dessert ($13) that stuns with a study of the sweet and the savoury, taro and soy salt mixed with a berry sorbet and rich dark chocolate set against white chocolate. And just where did they score that Thai basil?
Chang's Momofuku is nothing if not memorable; probably the first time in eons that a hotel attracted so much buzz among local hipsters. With Momofuku mania in full swing will the border of Queen West cool now move eastward?