Leaving Momofuku to Others
I passed an hour or so at the Yuca Bar with a couple of $5 mojitos and a nice conversation with the Peruvian bartender.
Then I decided to make my first visit to Momofuku, the trendy noodle bar and small plates eatery around the corner from my old digs, on First Avenue and Tenth Street. Momofuku has gotten lots of buzz and rave reviews. It's a small place, and for the longest time, perhaps still, there were lines out the door at prime dining times. It's an upscale, non-traditional take on the traditional Japanese ramen bar (perhaps a sly joke, the restaurant is named for the inventor of instant ramen). The proprietor is David Chang, who honed his craft at the very upscale Craft restaurant. Times food writers Mark Bittman, Peter Meehan and Frank Bruni are all gaga over Chang, and online food boards are bursting at the seams with ecstatic paeans to Momofuku, especially the steamed buns with pork. I wondered if there was real meat to the buzz, or if it was a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. Having an aversion to the trendy, I kept away for quite a while.
Chang's obsession is quality pork, and he uses cream of the crop Berkshire pork, ham and bacon from a select group of boutique organic breeders. Berkshire pork is not cheap (a bone-in loin can go for $20 a pound). It is especially popular in Japan, where it's known as kurobuta. Berkshire is to pork as Kobe is to beef. The pork buns are small steamed white buns in which are placed several slices of fatty pork belly, hoisin sauce and cucumber slices. The price tag is $9 for two rather small buns. I have to concede that the pork was perfect: moist and richly flavorful, the fat wonderfully buttery. Still, after all the hype I was left asking: is that all there is? And, of course, two little buns do not a meal make.
I also ordered a baby octopus salad, served atop konbu seaweed in a soy vinaigrette with a perfect blend of garlic, ginger and chili. This was a $13 small plate, so a quick, not too filling meal set me back $28 with tax and tip, and not a drop to drink besides water.
The thing is, it's a small, bar-only place with minimal decor and service, and it's best suited to a quick in and out. The ingredients and execution may be admirable, but given the physical limitations, I'd say the menu is at least 25% overpriced. On the menu they list their meat suppliers, but also the designer of their stools. They were nice enough stools, I guess, as far as backless stools go, but give me a break. Overall, I just don't get the allure. If I'm going to spend real money I want comfort. New York has too much good, reasonably priced food for me to become a Momofuku groupie. I leave the place to the tastemakers and their followers.
When I lived in the East Village (1979-87) a place like Momofuku most likely wouldn't have been possible (not to mention that nobody had ever heard of Berkshire pork in the U.S., regardless of the fact it's a "heritage" breed). Back then there were cheap Ukrainian restaurants, cheap Indian restaurants, old-school Italian restaurants, and scattered cheap restaurants of other nationalities. An upscale restaurant like Hearth would have been unthinkable, as its well-heeled clientele did not frequent the neighborhood, except, perhaps, for drugs. Still standing across the street from Momofuku is Sapporo East, a solid, traditional noodle shop that did open during my time in the neighborhood.
I was still hungry after my "snack" at Momofuku, so I went around the corner to Veniero's, for a legacy East Village dessert, a slice of Italian cheesecake. I used to love Veniero's Italian cheesecake, but I probably hadn't tasted it in about twenty years. Well, I was disappointed. It was not the creamy, moist, eggy cake I remembered. This one was denser and less flavorful, or so I thought. But then I wondered: had the cake changed or had I changed?
You can go home again, but home is a river.