Hip to be Square Part I

In food on 05/29/2010 at 6:54 pm

The cat’s outta the bag. More precisely, the cat stealthily scurried up the back patio stairs, over the balcony and into the neighbor’s yard. So now the cat’s in detention. No more forbidden foreign garden romps. Though given another chance, he’d do it again.

That wasn’t a metaphor, but it coincidentally describes our recent experience at Momofuku. I’d gotten my grubby hands on David Chang’s cookbook, and didn’t want to believe the hype. What could a foul-mouthed Korean dude who is infamous for terrorizing everyone around him know about good ramen, fusion at that, when all he did was spend a year in Japan working with a soba master? It turns out, a lot. It goes to show that all you need in this world is a pair of bull’s testicles and be willing to slap people with them so they know who’s boss.

If we are to believe what David Chang represents (as ghostwritten), then he’s just another person who believes in local food (he has a particular redneck country ham fetish), foraging around for what’s best, putting out the best ingredients in the form he thinks showcases them the best. What makes him beyond hipster is he is an immigrant, raised by doubting Asian parents, and harbors those particular Generation X ideas about how things should be done, i.e. forget these old school categories and cuisines, just mix together flavors you like.

We had just finished a sake tasting at Sakaya, the sake boutique in the LES, when I drunkenly stumbled into Momofuku. The tiny storefront had the emblematic peach logo, but the door and window were covered with a medieval-esque metal grillwork, reminiscent of a dungeon. It was dark, spotlighted at the end of the hall where people were hovering. Was it loud? I don’t remember.

Some white guy behind a table in front asked if we had reservations. Bewildered, I queried semi-loudly, “We need reservations?” recalling in the back of my mind that David Chang was supposed to be egalitarian in theory and didn’t take reservations, especially at the Noodle Bar. Turns out we were at Ko, which is the branch of the empire that does take online free-for-all reservations and is probably >$200 for the nightly omakase. Noodle Bar is half-a-block up the street.

We sheepishly darted out and found the wall-to-floor glass storefront prime for people-watching that is the Noodle Bar. The cost-effective plywood theme was still in full effect. I discovered from reading the cookbook that the tiny Ko used to be the Noodle Bar before it exploded into the outer stratosphere. Then they moved to their current location, doubled in size, but kept the plywood as their signature upscale Ikea aesthetic.

It was already terribly crowded inside at 6:30pm, and by the time we left, patrons were crowding the front door, waiting to grab a seat at the two long bars or one of the communal tables. The premise of this place was a little strange, laissez faire marché meets high school cafeteria meets Chelsea nightclub meets haute cuisine. It was loud and dark and cramped. The techno beats were drumming my eardrums into oblivion. I felt uncomfortably trendy, but gosh darn it, I was going to get my ramen! Since David Chang’s waxing poetic about how ramen was supposed to be slightly yellow from natural oxidation and his awshucks anecdote about Benton and his love of pig got me revved up enough to show up, a little deafness wasn’t going to stop me.

The Sister was in town and in tow, so we ordered the requisite chicken dish. I heard there was fried chicken somewhere, but not here, not today. It was wood-smoked wings, with a sweet-sour-spicy sauce, recalling the flavors of a sauce Mother used to make when she pan-fried tilapia. The subtle flavor of the chicken was a cut above Chinatown. The chicken texture, however, was not as QQ as we’ve had from local farms, and thus disappointing, especially after the other half was assured of its superiority by the pasty and waif thin 80’s pleated shorts-wearing waitress who broodingly awaited us. Her bangs flopped in front of her left eye, carefully casual.

Finally, the ramen. Huge white bowls, filled 1/3 full, wiped and inspected prior to service by intense guys, they of studied scraggly moustaches and clever T-shirts. The broth was equally intensely salty. But everything else about it was magical. The metrosexual adjacent to my left elbow commented he didn’t understand what was so great about the ramen. “They just throw everything in there.” Oh my dear boy-man, if only you knew how many bowls of ramen I have slurped to get to this one. It is even better than Mitsuwa’s for three reasons: noodle texture, pork flavor, and egg mastery.

The noodle is worth gushing over, though in everything I have read of Momofuku, no one has mentioned how wonderful the ramen is. If ever there is something worth describing as toothsome, this ramen is it. Everyone else is blinded by the pork belly buns which David Chang admits isn’t even made with his own steamed buns, and that he ripped off the idea from the Taiwanese. He orders the buns, like everyone else, from Chinatown. And if they are the same lifeless frozen styrofoam junk as I’ve had from supermarkets, I don’t know how people can think those are good. I suspect they’ve just never tasted authentic Asian food.

But the ramen, oh the ramen. It is house-made, fresh, thickly cut to retain that QQ till the last bite. Even in the dim incandescence, I could tell it wasn’t pale like the waitress. It also didn’t have that weird chemically odor from the kansui that I get when I use the precious liquid. Worth every penny of its $16, that noodle. It is even better than the noodle at Ippudo where it’s so fresh you see them weighing out the ramen on the scale before they scald it in boiling water.

The pig here is served two ways: two thick slices of the mythical pork belly (same as in the buns) and shredded shoulder. Now this is pig I could get in bed with. It is perfectly QQ, savory, roasted, and has an equally pungent band of lard layered with it. The belly is better than the shoulder, simply because you can appreciate the execution and love that went into it. Shredded meats is a category for lesser grade stuff in which you can hide imperfection. It’s like Europeans who claim they eat ‘nose to tail’ but they are eating all the parts molded in an unified terrine. How can you appreciate the differences in each unique offal?

The egg is like yellow fudge, slow poached to coax out minute intrinsic flavors. I could slurp that yolk all day, the pure taste of chicken meat in liquid form. That farm egg is something else. I could taste the worms and dirt and poop the chicken slathered itself in all day. Here is Mother Earth, the edible Sun, and the universe altogether, in a bowl, served for your pleasure.

Ramen Ingredients: (all recipes adapted from Momofuku):
5 1/2 cups bread flour, or ’00’ pasta flour
1 1/3 cups water
2 1/4 tsp alkaline water (kansui)

1. Combine all ingredients and knead with dough hook for 10 min. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
2. Dust ball of dough with flour. Roll with pin into rectangle that will fit the machine. Roll out pasta on widest setting on pasta machine. Reduce setting and roll until it’s a width you like. Dust with more flour as necessary. Cut to desired width of noodle.

Slow Poached Eggs Ingredients:

1. Fill big pot with water over low heat.
2. Set cookie rack, or aluminum foil donut and a bunch of chopsticks, at bottom of pot.
3. Heat to 140-145 degrees.
4. Add eggs and leave for 40 minutes. Keep the temp constant.
5. Use or store after chilling in ice water bath. Warm under hot tap water for 1 min before using.

Bonus Recipe: Momo Fried Chicken
1. Brine chicken in 1:1 sugar/salt to 1:4.5 water ratio no more than 6 hrs
2. Steam chicken 40 min. Cool on rack and chill in fridge overnight.
3. Let chicken warm up on counter. Fry chicken until skin brown and crisp ~8min
4. Coat in momo sauce, 1 cup:
2 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp chopped ginger
1/2 tsp chile
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
white pepper

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