All That Glitters Is Ko
There are restaurants in this city that behave like a drunken prom date; sloppily begging for attention. Then there are the Momofuku restaurants, with their air of effortless cool, drawing notice by simply being. Wait times at Noodle and Ssäm Bars regularly stretch above feature film length, and David Chang's fine dining jewel box, Ko, is notoriously tough to book (thanks in part to a maddening online reservation system).
But with the revamping and reopening of Ko in a larger space on Extra Place, getting a reservation has become slightly easier (operative word: "slightly," since Ko is still very much in its hot-seat days). And regardless of how you feel about Chang's empire, or the breathless anticipation that preceded this event, or what you think you know about fine dining—you should gun for one of those chairs.
The kitchen at Ko
Why? Because executive chef Sean Gray is taking full advantage of his new space, both physically and intellectually, smashing down and rebuilding the idea of what any single cuisine or service philosophy ought to be.
It starts with the layout: In the sleek room, splashed with dramatic paintings from street artist David Choe, a U-shaped countertop flanks a spacious open kitchen like theater seats, which is in many ways what your two-and-a-half-hour dinner will be. Reservations are staggered, so depending on when and where you sit, you may catch a glimpse of a dish still to come, heightening your anticipation. A dozen or so cooks thrum before you, slicing minute strips of pear or blasting the top of your mackerel with a Searzall torch. You'll witness every step that goes into making every dish, so pay attention.
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Cooks rotate through a handful of dishes in the many-course menu (we counted 16 on a recent visit), and you'll be served by no fewer than five of them throughout the course of the night, each one appearing before you to present a plate and brief description of its contents. Sometimes they say words you don't understand, like "lobster with sweet potato and tonburi," and when you look helplessly at them, they will let you sniff a jar of tiny seeds that look like caviar and smell like dank earth, and say, "This is tonburi, aka 'land caviar,' and it adds a really cool texture to the dish—you'll see."
And it does, in a constantly evolving menu filled with what could prosaically be described as "really cool textures." Sheafs of laminated rye dough crackle as you bite into the mille-feuille amuse, filled out with bechamel, trout roe, yuzukoshō and dusted with radioactive-looking matcha powder. Hundreds of tiny basil seeds pop, suspended in a tart pineapple dashi littered with chewy nubs of seared razor clams. Scrambled eggs, luxuriant and soft, are smothered in potato sauce and topped with Osetra caviar and crunchy smashed bits of potato chips. (It comes with bread that's baked from a 2-year-old sourdough starter, putting your morning egg sandwich to shame.)
The mille-feuille | Mackerel sabazushi
While most of the transactions occur between you and the cooks directly, other staffers slink smoothly throughout your meal, offering guidance on the complex wine menu and context for the tiniest of details (I asked about the engraved table knives served alongside a meat course, and one waiter happily recounted their origin story as though he himself had been gnawing steaks with their designer, Yves Charles). The only dull spot on the sheen of the evening was dessert, a coconut-lime sorbet with burned-to-order rum meringue and shortbread cookies that sat prettily but seemed muted after the powerful, precise flavors of the savory courses.
It's a high-end experience (with the bill to prove it—the tasting menu costs $175 a person, with beverage pairings another $155), but worth it to see how a restaurant that's never lost its edge continues to stay sharp.
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