I made my way over to the East Village after work and met up with my close childhood girlfriends, Chloe and Ashley, at Momofuku Noodle Bar. I consider myself somewhat of a devotee of Momofuku Milk Bar, although I am secretly grateful that I don’t have constant access to Birthday Cake Truffles, Crack Pie, and Cereal Milk on the West Coast, as it would be a very slippery slope for me. However, I had never eaten at Momofuku Noodle Bar and it has always been on my list to try.
Momofuku Noodle Bar was the first in what is now David Chang’s Momofuku
Group Empire. If you aren’t familiar with him already, there has been a great deal of hype around Chang for sometime now, between press about his food and his numerous television appearances on shows such as HBO’s Treme and Top Chef. Just recently, Bon Appetit named Momofuku (at large) one of the ’20 Most Important Restaurants in America’ and claimed that it was responsible for the ‘pork bun that launched a thousand imitators.’ There is no doubt that Chang is a master, if not the master, when it comes to nailing a restaurant concept. Exhibit A: Nine years after opening, this place still has a line spilling out onto the sidewalk on a Monday night.
The dangerous thing about achieving a reputation like his, however, is that people like me will come in having very high expectations. That is not to say that we didn’t have some delicious highlights of our meal, don’t get me wrong. If we had walked in off the street to some obscure place called Momofuku that no one had ever heard of, we probably would have thought we hit the jackpot and would be raving about it to all of our friends. Unfair? Maybe a little. But, therein lies the challenge of living up to the hype.
One of my absolute favorite parts of the meal came in icy, liquid form and we sipped it while waiting to be seated: The Creamsicle Soju Slushie. Man, oh man. My life would be instantly improved if I could be served one of these babies every day around 6 pm. Who am I kidding? I would drink it at 10 am, it’s that good. It tastes like an R-rated, boozy version of your childhood summers, with that perfect creamsicle flavor that somehow manages not to be nauseatingly sugary. I think mine was gone before we actually sat down, so obviously I ordered another one right away.
We started with the Pork Buns (remember, the ones that launched a thousand imitators?) served on edible pillows with hoisin, cucumber, and scallion. I will say, they were perfectly executed. Good ratio in terms of bun to filling (with actually a bit of extra meat), fluffy buns, and flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly. I guess the problem with inspiring so many knock-offs is that when you finally have the real deal, it doesn’t quite have the same impact. Or maybe I’m just being overly harsh?
We each went with a ramen bowl, which is exactly what my ragged self needed. I went with the special, the Beef Ramen, which was served with scallions, shaved baby carrot, and black truffle. The broth was rich and delicious, but the only issue is that there wasn’t nearly enough. (If you want proof, just look at my pictures.) After I ran out of broth and beef (which was in a limited quantity as well), there were only noodles left. I finished them nonetheless, but I would’ve liked to have more good stuff to go with them.
Ashley got the classic Momofuku Ramen with pork belly, pork shoulder, and a poached egg, and Chloe ordered an off-the-menu Chicken Ramen with cabbage, scallions, and Swiss chard. I loved the flavors in both of their dishes, especially the silky, creamy egg in Ashley’s. In contrast, Ashley had the perfect amount of broth, but Chloe had plenty of excess broth at the end, leaving us with a bit of a Goldilocks and the Three Bears situation on our hands.
Before I get to dessert, I want to address an issue I had with the overall dining experience. At Noodle Bar, there are several long tables attached to the wall with bench-style seating. These tables are packed very closely together, which poses a bit of an issue when someone on the inside needs to use the restroom, leave, etc. I would venture to say that the nine people at our table had to shuffle down and stand up to let someone out or in at least three times throughout the course of the meal. I get that this fits the ‘We don’t give a f*ck’ attitude of Chang’s restaurants, but it became somewhat comical at a point as it felt like we couldn’t even maintain a fluid conversation.
Luckily for us, we’ve known each other since sixth grade, so we’re seasoned pros at keeping the conversation going in awkward situations, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go on a first date there (unless I was sitting at the bar or at a counter table spot). I felt like it was trying to obtain the Wagamama (amazing London noodle chain) vibe with the casual bench seating, but logistically, it just wasn’t working.
For dessert, we split the White Miso Pudding, topped with apple, pistachio, and tarragon. Huge points for innovation with this one–I had never had anything quite like it. Great texture and flavor, as it was a bit salty and sweet. However, for reasons I’m not able to articulate, we couldn’t even finish it between the three of us. We all really enjoyed our couple small bites, but didn’t need to scrape the dish clean. Interpret that as you will.
Looking back at our meal, was anything terrible? No way. Was anything life-changing? I would say no, with the exception of maybe the soju slushie (still hoping to recreate that one). I’ve had ramen in London and in small, grimy International District joints in Seattle that I’ve enjoyed just as much. However, I am still glad I experienced Momofuku Noodle Bar and in one way or another, was able to pay my respects to Mr. Chang, someone whose culinary influence will be felt in America indefinitely. Sadly, I just might have been a few years too late.
Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 First Avenue, New York, NY, http://momofuku.com/new-york/noodle-bar/ Open Daily for Lunch and Dinner, See Website for Hours, No Reservations (With the Exception of the Fried Chicken Dinner for Groups of 4-8)