Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Momofuku Nishi, New York

I had two nights in New York.  My arrival night, for a variety of reasons, lead me to Xi'an Famous Foods, for fast casual Chinese cuisine that I didn't exactly love.  But for the second night, I was ready, and secured a reservation at Momofuku Nishi for myself and co-workers.  It was the perfect venue, as it is located right down the street from our office.  This meal was much more impressive, as I hoped.

Momofuku is a empire of restaurants, built by chef David Chang.  It started with Noodle Bar in 2004, and just totally took off from there.  I think they have a dozen or so establishments at this point, mostly in New York, but also in Sydney, Toronto, Washington, DC and soon, Vegas.  Each restaurant has a distinct concept, but all are Asian fusion of some form, ranging from the ramen at Noodle Bar, to casual fried chicken sandwiches at Fuku, to the fixed menu at Ko.  And of course, there is also Momofuku Milk Bar, a chain of bakeries featuring shockingly good cookies, amazing soft serve ice cream, cakes and truffles, and more.
Dinner @ Momofuku Nishi.
This visit was to Nishi, the latest establishment in the Momofuku chain to open in New York, in Chelsea.  The concept is Korean Italian, focusing on noodles.  Like I said, fusion.  It opened only in January 2016; my visit was in October, 10 months into its run.

Many initial reviews were lackluster, from critics and diners alike, although professional critics seemed far more harsh than average Yelpers.  Critiques ranged from the uncomfortable seating and horrible acoustics, to the concept itself, to high prices.  None of which I can really argue with.

However, I'm still glad I went.  And I'd gladly return.  Because while there are plenty of flaws with Nishi, there are also butter noodles.  And they were worth it.

The Setting

The dining room at Nishi is basically the opposite of inviting.  When we walked in, I looked around, and realized there wasn't a single table that looked comfortable to dine at.  There was certainly no soft glow to this room.

The entire space had a harsh, uninspired feel to it.  The floor was made of hard dark grey tiles, the walls were painted a matching dark grey with blond wooden planks on the bottom, which matched the simple wooden furniture.  The only interesting decor element were paintings on the walls.
Seating.
The majority of the room is filled with long communal blond wood tables, low-ish to the floor, with backless matching box seats.  Most groups are seated here, even if they have reservations, alongside other diners.

There are only two private tables for 4.  These are higher, with backless stools and hooks for purses, and we fortunately had one of those.  Since there is little room to put anything down, and you can't hang a jacket over the back of your chair, coat check was offered the moment we sat.  We were given little paper numbers, which we then had to call someone over to retrieve when we were done.  Seems like they could streamline this process a bit, given that they take the coats from the tables and bring them back there, did they really need to have us hold onto the coat tags?

The seats were as uncomfortable as they looked.  We didn't feel compelled to linger around for sure, and even opted to go elsewhere for dessert (ok, to be fair, that is because the Milk Bar a few doors down had a new seasonal soft serve flavor, how could we not check it out?)
Place Setting.
The tables were set with equally simple, er, boring, plain white plates, white napkins, water and wine glasses.  Since the entire menu is sharing style, these were our share plates.  We were offered a new set in-between two rounds of food order, which we accepted.

Interestingly, there was no silverware laid out, but the server brought it once we ordered.  We were provided with individual silverware only, never any serving utensils, a bit awkward since it was all family style.

Drinks

As soon as we were seated we were offered water, still or sparkling, house-made.  We opted for sparkling, and water was poured for each of us, and a full extra jug was left on the table.  Major points for having house sparkling water, as I love sparkling but hate paying $$$ for water, and major points for leaving us a full bottle, so we could refill as needed.
Drink Menu.
I looked over the drink menu in advance online, so I knew I wanted a cocktail, but I still had a hard time deciding between the cocktails.  So many of them had interesting elements.  The drink menu also had several wines by the glass or on tap, beer, and soda, including housemade sodas.

Several of the others opted for housemade sodas, available in ginger, fennel, or poblano-lime flavors.  I tried both the ginger and the fennel, and they were certainly interesting, refreshing drinks, and a unique option for those not seeking alcohol.
Poblano Sour - mezcal, thai basil, jalapeno. $17.
For my cocktail, I settled on the poblano sour, as it sounded both refreshing (basil!) and interesting (jalapeno!).  It arrived right after our first appetizer, not quite ideal, as I wished I had time to sip it before.

It was ... well, certainly sour as named.  But I didn't taste the basil, nor the spicy jalapeno.  No spice, no refreshing quality.  Instead, it was somehow quite bitter.  Yes, sour and bitter.  Not quite what I had in mind.

It was also very small, if you can tell from the photo.  This was the drink as it arrived, small glass, not very full.  Maybe this is standard in New York, but $17 for a very small cocktail seemed quite high.

Food

All dishes are served family style, and brought to the table as they are ready.  We were never provided any serving utensils, which was particularly strange when sharing a plate of pasta.

Food arrived in a timely manner, with good pacing, generally brought out by different staff members than our original server.
Savory Food Menu.
The menu is broken into 4 categories of savory food: appetizers, noodles, entreés, and side dishes.  Interestingly, there are only 2 entreés on the menu (pork and cod), both of which we skipped, since I knew the noodles were more worthy of our stomach space.

Our initial order was intentionally light, as we planned to order more based on how we were feeling.  Our server had no problem with this, and left us a menu to continue pondering.

Appetizers

Appetizers make up the largest portion of the menu, with 9 items, mostly all cold dishes, including salads, raw seafood, and vegetarian items.
 Papaya Salad –  miso, toasted rice.  $12.
For our first round, we selected the papaya salad to have something lighter and refreshing alongside the heavier noodle dishes.  We had several options for a lighter dish, but the miso and toasted rice sounded unique, so we picked it.  Really, how do you turn down miso?

It was the first dish to arrive, before our drinks even (although my cocktail was only 2 minutes behind).  As with all dishes, no serving utensils were provided.  Since this was our first dish, our utensils were all clean, and this was fine.

It looked unlike any papaya salad I had ever seen before.  To be fair, I basically only know one style of papaya salad, Thai som tum, made with shredded green unripe papaya, green beans, tomato, peanuts, etc in a fish sauce sauce.  This ... was not that.

The papaya was not unripe green papaya, rather, it was ripe orange papaya.  On top was something else that I never identified, maybe jicama?  Maybe it was unripe papaya?  Anyway, the papaya was juicy and refreshing, but the dressing, whatever it was, was far too tangy.

I love miso, but I didn't actually taste miso in this.  I expected the toasted rice to perhaps be crunchy bits of toasted rice on top, but, I never found, nor tasted, anything that I would identify as rice either.

So .... no miso and no toasted rice elements that I could identify, and very dressed in a far too tangy dressing.  I did not like this dish, my third pick of the night.
Warm Beets – walnut bagna cauda, chervil. $13.
In our second round of ordering, the group wanted more vegetables, so the beets were ordered.

Since I don't care for beets I skipped this, but I think I heard some grumbles about it not being warm, and no one seemed particularly eager to finish this dish.  I tried a walnut, but, yeah, not much to say there.

Sides

There were 3 options on the menu for side dishes.  The first is bitter greens in XO sauce which sounded like a good pick for a veggie if we hadn't already gone for the papaya salad, next was a fried potato dish that didn't seem like a good compliment to our upcoming pastas, and, finally there was a squash pancake, that I strongly advocated for ordering.

I found it hard to understand why the sides were considered sides instead of apps.  If noodles are your main, is a fried veggie pancake really a side?  Also, our side dish also arrived exactly one minute after our appetizer, and 10 minutes before our noodles, so, if it was a side dish, it was a side to our appetizer ...
Squash Pancake & Onion Vinegar. $13.
Any momentary disappointment I had with the papaya salad was replaced the moment I cut off a chunk of the squash pancake.  Ok, the moment I ate that chunk.

The "pancake" was large, nearly the size of a dinner plate, garnished with only a few slices of some kind of red pepper.  No drizzles of sauce, nothing fancy.  I wondered if there was supposed to be a side of the onion vinegar from the description, but no other photos I saw of it included a dipping sauce, so, I guess not.

I didn't really taste any vinegar inside the pancake, sticking in theme with the papaya salad of me never discovering the other elements that were supposed to be part of the dish.  Unlike the miso, I didn't miss it here, although I'm sure a little more tang would have amped up the flavor.

The pancake was made of thin slices of assorted winter squashes.  It had a nice char on the outside that imparted a phenomenal smoky flavor.  It was crispy where it was charred, but then the squash slices were soft.  The textures made it very enjoyable.

I really liked this, as it was a fairly unique item (at least, I haven't had a squash pancake before like this, I've had shredded zucchini pancakes, but that is totally different.  I also adore winter squashes, and I really liked the smoky flavor.  My second pick of the night, and I'd gladly get it again.  One other diner however did not like it, and the other two had no strong opinions.

Noodle

The next section of the menu is noodles, with four options.  One is the dish that is likely considered Nishi's signature: butter noodles.  I believe this has been on the menu since Nishi opened.  It gets lots of raves, which I quickly understood once I tried it.  The other dishes are less iconic, but still sounded interesting, although all get mixed reviews: spicy beef, chili squid, and jajangmyeon (a classic Korean Chinese dish).

We opted for two noodle dishes, both of which arrived about 10 minutes after our apps/sides, and, as before, no serving utensils, which was more awkward with noodles and our dirty personal utensils.
Butter Noodle – chickpea hozon, black pepper. $19.
Ok, first, to step back before I get into the actual review.

Let's start with the description.  "Butter noodle", ok, that part makes sense.  "Black pepper", also, known item.  But what about "chickpea hozon"?  Chickpea sure, but, hozon?  I hadn't heard of that. Don't worry, you aren't lacking culinary knowledge here either, it turns out, the Momofuku restaurant group invented hozon, so, unless you are a Momofuku fiend, there is no way you'd know what this is.

So, what is hozon?  Hozon is "traditional miso made with non-traditional ingredients" or "a fermented, stone-ground seasoning made in the style of miso paste."  The name comes from the Japanese word for preserved, as hozon is made using fermented nuts, seeds, and legumes (but not soybeans like regular miso).  Momofuku produces several varieties in addition to the chickpea hozon used here, and you can purchase it, and other signature Momofuku staples like ssäm sauce, bonji (uh, soysauce minus soybeans), and their vegan xo sauce.

It also turns out that the dish was recently renamed to Butter Noodle, and had been titled Ceci e Pepe before, a play on Cacio e Pepe clearly, but, I'm guessing that most folks don't know that ceci means chickpea, and even if they did, does "chickpea and pepper" really sound that good, particularly compared to, uh, "butter noodle"?  Yeah, I see why they renamed it.  Still, if you think of classic cacio e pepe, you'll see why they had gone with that name originally.

Ok, back to the dish.

It arrived hot and fresh, which was impressive, as pasta doesn't hold heat long.  Plus one point for that.  Like the pancake, there was nothing extra on the plate, just a mound of pasta, covered in pepper.

And what glorious pasta it was.  The pasta was expertly cooked, perfect al dente.  Plus one point.

The sauce was heavenly, and somehow managed to completely coat, and cling to, the pasta, without leaving a pool on the plate.  It was crazy rich, which I guess makes sense given that it is a butter base, but to be honest, it didn't taste buttery.  Nor did it taste like chickpeas, which I slightly feared as I don't like chickpeas.  What *did* it taste like then?  Well, uh, cacio e pepe.  Although entirely cheese-free.  Speaking of the pepper, there was lots of it, and it was slightly spicy, which gave a great kick.

I really enjoyed this, and 3/4 of us rated it the top dish of the night, hands down.  I'd gladly get it again.  Which, uh, we did, as soon as our server came back.  Literally.
Butter Noodle - plus Burgundy Black Truffles. $19 + $30 truffle supplement.
When we ordered our second batch of butter noodles, our server innocently asked, "would you like to add truffles to that?"

We all kinda looked at each other and shrugged.  One person asked if it was real truffle not truffle oil.  The server confirmed it was.  We had the choice of Burgundy black truffles for $30 or Alba white truffles for $60, or, no truffles for $0.  But you know what happens when you give people 3 choices ... they pick the middle one.  Which we did.  Black truffles it was.

Our second batch came about 10 minutes later, alongside the beets that we ordered then as well.  The truffles were added in the kitchen rather than table side, but we all acknowledged that it was a fairly generous portion.

The truffles were, well, shaved truffles.  Earthy and tasty, but actually just not necessary in the dish.  I quickly wrote in my notes that the truffle didn't add to the dish.  Others, unprompted, expressed how "meh" they felt about the truffle addition too.  We could have had 2.5 orders of the noodles for the price of one with truffles, and clearly, we all just wanted more noodles.  One diner even went so far as to say "the truffles made it worse".

We were glad we ordered a second batch of the glorious noodles, but next time, I'd leave off the truffles.  I must admit though, they sure made for better food porn.  Way to go on the upsell, server!
Spicy Beef – shells, mint, crispy shallots. $21.
Our final dish was spicy beef noodles.

Like the butter noodles, the pasta here was perfectly cooked al dente, in this case, ridged, curved shells.

The shells were tossed in what tasted like a tomato based sauce, with chunks of beef.  There was some slight heat to it, mostly only on the finish, not really enough to classify as "spicy" in my mind.  I didn't like the flavor of the sauce, I can't pinpoint it exactly, besides that it was just a very strange flavor.  I'm guessing there was some Korean flair in there that I just didn't care for.

On top was tons of crispy shallots, delicious crispy shallots, but I actually felt like there was too much.

Overall, I really didn't like this, my least favorite of the night, although the one person who didn't list the butter noodles as his top choice said this was his favorite, so, clearly, some people like this dish.  I do give points for the cooking of the pasta though.
Momofuku Nishi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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