There isn’t another bar in the city like the one that opened in February as part of the redesign of David Chang’s Momofuku Ko. One thing that sets it apart is that it doesn’t have a name. Credit-card receipts call it “Momofuku Ko,” even though it operates in its own little room with its own entrance. The door, a few steps past Ko’s along the East Village alley known as Extra Place, is marked “Ko.” The menus don’t give a name at all.
They don’t look much like menus, either. They’re notebooks in which the items available, presented in a short à la carte list (in contrast to the hourslong tastings offered for $255 at Ko), are handwritten on a fresh page each day, by different employees using different pens. The date is at the top over a list of dishes that you will not find together anywhere else.
Lately there has been a lucid, refreshing plate of raw sea scallops, sliced cold and mixed with fresh green shiso and folds of pineapple, red with ground chiles. Lightly cured fillets of sardine made a thrilling appearance last month in a brick-red oil flavored with paprika, cayenne, and other components of tandoori paste. Both were solidly in the tradition of Momofuku small plates that the world has known since Mr. Chang’s Ssam Bar began remixing various Asian ideas after-hours. Both were wonderful.
The savory pie stuffed with fresh-made pork sausage patties comes from another place entirely. You could tour the city’s proudest French restaurants without coming across a more skillfully done puff pastry crust, notched like a pinwheel and baked to a deep mahogany. The pie costs $45 and typically serves two, sliced into half-moons. It is plated with a reduction sauce, as classical and French as it gets but with an insistent vein of acidity that somehow makes it modern.
Even if you’re used to the signature Momofuku move of white-knuckle bungee jumping from the high end to the low, certain juxtapositions may call for Dramamine. Alongside the masterly pork pie, you can find a $5 sandwich of pickled daikon and cucumber sticks inside a grilled and buttered Martin’s hot dog roll. The pickle sandwich is just the thing to eat with the cold fried chicken that is battered three times, fried four times, brushed with a spicy mirin-yuzu glaze and served nearly at refrigerator temperature. I don’t believe I’ve used that phrase approvingly in a review before, but then I don’t think a restaurant has served me cold fried chicken as good as this before.
By flipping through the menu pages you can pinpoint the dates when dishes were first served, and see others that came and went. The idea is for Ko’s executive chef, Sean Gray, to use the bar as a “field for research and development for our culinary team,” according to the website. Ideas are auditioned or refined before they graduate to Ko, which I gave three stars in a 2015review. Most menus, at least the ones that change over time, are works in progress, but few make that explicit the way the one at Ko’s bar does.
The cynical way to look at this is that bar customers are paying to serve as lab rats. This will not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out. One recent evening, the menu was as meat-heavy as at Ssam Bar in the era when its menus still proclaimed, “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items.” Among the more substantial dishes that night was a mixed-meat sausage stuffed into a chicken neck and grilled. One end of the neck was open. The other was still attached to the chicken’s head. It was a sensational sausage, but it did nothing to make Ko’s bar the kind of place that you’d take your new pescatarian friend.
The bar, run collaboratively by Mr. Gray and Su Wong Ruiz, the general manager, works best for diners who don’t need a multitude of choices to be happy. To the extent that it resembles other places, it’s probably most similar to a wine bar, with its tight menu, its casual drop-in-and-stay-awhile air and its carefully considered list of wines by the glass, which it shares with Ko. Anyone who wants a whole bottle can order one from the full Ko list, a virtual who’s who of cult winemakers in certain specialties such as grower Champagne, chenin blanc from the Loire Valley and Burgundy of all stripes.
On the notebook page facing the handwritten menu are two more wines that Ambrose Chiang, the beverage director, is pouring by the glass for one day only. Recently I’ve lucked into a precisely shaped Côte-Rôtie from Domaine Jasmin and a Saumur from Romain Guiberteau whose self-assurance I envied. These specials can cost twice as much as the regular by-the-glass pours, which tend to fall between $15 and $25.
I can’t figure out why the wine-geek crowd doesn’t bring tents and sleeping bags to camp out at Ko’s bar. And I don’t understand why the place is almost never crowded, despite getting a fair amount of press after it opened.
The experimental nature of the menu can’t be keeping people away; people expect that from Momofuku restaurants. The only dish that I thought wasn’t totally successful was the fried zucchini made in the style of the fried chicken, and I was still glad I tried it.
The prices are all over the place, but a meal here doesn’t need to be expensive. While you are welcome to spend $100 on a sourdough crepe with 50 grams of white-sturgeon caviar, you can just get the crepe alone for $8. It is excellent: shiny with tangy cave-age butter, speckled with oregano cinders and crunchy from a pass over hot Japanese charcoal. The chicken, meanwhile, is $7 a piece.
The only reason I can think of for the empty seats is that the place is so hard to sum up. Try this description, then: Imagine an eccentric, highly polished David Chang restaurant that the world hasn’t heard about yet.
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