We certainly didn’t intend to eat at all four of David Chang’s restaurants as we began our quick planning for a Gourmandistan Christmas in New York City. But the path was set long before Snowicane, Snomageddon, Snowpocalypse or whatever you call the sixth-worst blizzard ever to hit the City. It started when Michelle beat Chang’s fiendishly democratic online reservation system for two of the available 12 seats at Momofuku Ko for Christmas lunch. Then, Steve made reservations for Má Pêche’s Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes. So there we were—set to eat our way through half of the Momofukus, satisfied we would see a good idea of what Chang had to offer.
Chang, for those who may suffer less food obsession than those here in Gourmandistan, is the Korean-American love child of Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain—a profane, punk-inflected culinary genius who conceives simple, devastatingly delicious food that starts from a pan-Asian perspective. Starting with Noodle Bar (which a few years ago we passed but refused to wait in line for, to some later regret), Chang built a big reputation and several outposts, including the idiosyncratic Ssäm Bar, the upscale Ko, and the Vietnamese-inspired Má Pêche.
Christmas Eve found us wriggling out of the bedbug-free sheets at SoHo’s new James Hotel, ready for a day to remember. We had one of the most fun (if not most tasty) dim sum meals ever, basking in the compliments of our grandmotherly Chinese table-mate who was impressed with our easy chopstick handling. After a day of wandering Manhattan, we began what we believed would be several consecutive hours of Chang-savoring with dinner at Má Pêche. And Chef Tien Ho’s set Christmas Eve menu did not disappoint. We ate much more food than we expected, in hearty, unexpected combinations that still somehow worked—such as a bowl of crunchy rice noodles, chili sauce and shrimp that arrived with a panchan of Brussels sprouts with bacon, turnips and fingerling potatoes. We left happy and sated, returning to the hotel to await our Christmas lunch.
While Má Pêche is spare yet spacious, with waiters and sommelier providing that Midtown polish, Ko is basically a heavy metal haute-cuisine sushi bar. Diners face chefs across a narrow, 12-stool bar, receiving that day’s set tasting menu which may include (as ours did) several preparations of rare matsutake mushrooms, a “bento box” with a duck meatball in cherry sauce and a rice ball bathed in duck fat, “tataki” of Wagyu beef and the now-famous shaved frozen foie gras with lychee and pine nut brittle. While the restaurant will attempt to accommodate allergies other than soy, vegetarians, pescatarians and food-phobics will have to dine elsewhere. And too bad for them, as well as folks who can’t dine without documenting every course (though this is adorable), because, as Chang said: “Eat … it’s just food!” Again dazzled and pleasantly full of Chang’s genius, we returned to the James, deciding to forego dinner in favor of simply munching on our Ko parting gifts of onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls filled with pickled vegetables). As we ate we began to notice a change in the weather forecasts for the next day, from “chance of snow” to “severe weather warning.”
On Boxing Day we’d planned to tackle the New York subway system, seeking a dim sum parlor in Brooklyn, Steve’s long-departed native land. But fat flakes were already falling as we awoke, with local news folk growing increasingly hysterical about the storm. Instead we dined again in the nearby Manhattan Chinatown, as the snow became increasingly heavy. Retreating to our room, we kept returning to the weather channels—but our thoughts kept returning to David Chang. As the media advised staying in, we started thinking about Ssäm Bar—and in early evening persuaded a cabbie to ferry us there through the snowy streets. While the ride took a bit longer than usual, Ssäm was worth the wait. The restaurant was right up our alley—relaxed, ready with good drinks and serving plates of great food, including a fabulous “special” crispy pork belly steamed bun with avocado and a raunchier distant cousin of our Má Pêche grilled shrimp bowl, this time with roasted rice cakes and Chinese sausage in a robust chili sauce.
After our meal came the real blizzard. We could tell you about the horizontal snow and the white-out conditions that obscured the spotlit billboard across the street—but this guy shows it way better. We changed our flight, then went to bed, waking up to winds so brutal we barely escaped for a quick sandwich before retreating to our room—realizing our New York adventure was going to be a bit longer than we thought. As plows grumbled past during the day, we began to see how the storm could be used to our advantage—and planned a trip to Momofuku Noodle Bar. After a harrowing taxi ride in which Michelle thought we’d have to help push (and Steve thought we’d have to bail and run from a stranded cab), we made it—enjoying Chang’s original pork belly steamed buns as well as some excellent ramen. (Michelle was initially skeptical of a noodle bowl, but found her chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan spiced sausage, baby spinach and candied cashews impossible to put down.) The ride back through nearly silent streets wasn’t as stressful, but deepened our realization that we weren’t going anywhere for a while.
Over the next two days we behaved like many New Yorkers—navigating snowdrifts and then piles of slush, dodging tourists along with growing heaps of uncollected garbage and eating at David Chang restaurants—another Ssäm Bar dinner with another selection of small delights (including a darling dish of sweetbreads with almonds, sauerkraut and Thai chili), and a Má Pêche lunch that included the bestest, crispest, most rice-noodle-crunchingest summer roll ever. Boots were bought, cars were canceled, room stays were extended, and finally there was a flight back to Brownsboro—where Chang’s Momofuku cookbook awaits our eager experiments in recreating our New York experience at home. Minus, we hope, the snow lightning.