While I was busy sending cohorts on field trips last week, I also managed to squeeze in a trip of my own, to New York for the Michael Skurnik national portfolio tasting. That was a doozy – seven hours and over 90 tables – so my report may not surface for a few more days. As you might imagine, food was a dire necessity by the end of the tasting.
Since I had a few hours to kill before catching my train, I called a friend who lives in the East Village and we decided to grab a bite to eat at Momofuku Noodle Bar. The little bit of cash I’d saved by taking the late train went right back into the local economy. Always trying to do my part…. From the looks of it, Momofuku’s not feeling the pinch. It was Wednesday night and the joint was packed. No sooner did we walk in the door than about a dozen people lined up behind us. We were in luck, though, as two seats had just opened at the kitchen bar. The fact that Famke Janssen was tucking into a bowl of ramen two seats to my right was just an added little voyeuristic treat.
Given that Momofuku Noodle Bar has been on the scene for the better part of five years, it’s plain to say that I’m a little behind the curve in only now getting there for the first time. Though the wave of attention garnered by Momofuku (it means “lucky peach”) seems to have passed its peak, the restaurant shows no signs of falling into comfortable neglect. The menu changes daily, at least in part, and continues to reflect local, seasonal ingredients along with a flair for fun. It also continues to attract serious culinary adventurers and curious tourists alike, while doubling (from what I could tell, at least) as a regular neighborhood spot, a dichotomy that’s reflected in the narrow room’s constant buzz of energy tempered by a sense of comfort and ease at the table.
Though there’s a clear core of East Asian influence to the overall menu at Momofuku Noodle Bar, there’s also little if any gesture made toward maintaining traditional recipes. And that’s the intention. In the owners’ own words, “We try and serve delicious American food.” Beyond the Asian basis, influences are drawn from far and wide. An appetizer of raw bay scallops, served on the half-shell and dressed with a low-acid, room temp broth (did I detect green tea?) would have been equally at home in a sushi bar or as at the raw bar in an adventurous chop house. A Middle Eastern slant was incorporated into our appetizer of roasted red and golden beets served with a dollop of sesame infused yogurt.
If there’s an intentional central theme at Momofuku, it’s clearly pork. Whether in subtle form, as with the small bits of Benton’s ham in the beet salad, or playing a starring roll, as in the pork steamed buns that flowed constantly from the open kitchen, there’s a porcine influence of one kind or another to more than half the dishes on the menu.
The house signature dish is a case in point. Momofuku Ramen looks reasonably traditional, right down to a slice of fish cake and sheet of nori. The noodles are toothsome and flavorful. A perfectly poached egg adds a nice touch, too. But the dish is so intensely pork driven that it’s far from classic ramen. The deeply colored, richly flavored broth is only the beginning. Add to that a generous, fatty slab of pork belly and a fistful of pulled pork and you’ve got a bowl of noodles that’s unquestionably over-the-top. I have a high tolerance for rich food yet was still unable to finish the bowl. Brooklynguy called it “unbalanced” in his excellent roundup of Manhattan ramen bars and I’m inclined to agree. But while traditional it’s not – and imbalanced it may be – I can hardly say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s heady enough to satisfy a tremendous hunger and to warm the coldest soul. And it lends credence to the line that still forms at Momofuku's door.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 First Avenue
(between 10th & 11th)
New York, NY 10003