Going to New York, I was determined to try one of David Chang’s restaurants. I had read extensively about this somewhat elusive “culinary bad boy” – certainly one of the most talked about chefs in New York for the last five years – and was torn between dismissing this Momofuku-frenzied foodie hype and hopping on the fan train.
My quest to go and judge for myself began with a subscription to Momofuku’s online reservation system. I discovered that some of two of Chang’s restaurants don’t take reservations, except for special menus served to groups (the Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar), while Ko, his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, took reservations only a week in advance. Ko’s reservation system is notoriously difficult: opening at 10am daily, the few available seats fly off in a matter of minutes. I chose to go to Chang’s newest restaurant, Mà Pêche, which is bigger, so it’s much easier to get a table. They also allow bookings up to two weeks in advance.
Mà Pêche (which means “Mother Peach” in Vietnamese slang) is Vietnamese–French-themed and located in the trendy midtown Chambers Hotel. The restaurant sits in an impressive and very minimalist double-height space, dominated by a giant cross-shaped communal table, white fabric-clothed walls and lighting in an overwhelmingly peachy hue. There’s also a massive mezzanine where the bar sits and where the hotel serves breakfast to its clients. Entering the restaurant, we were greeted by the famous Milk Bar, a take-out counter where you can feed on Cereal Milk and Compost Cookies. Promising myself I would buy something on the way out, we walked past it and were guided to our table on the lower level. The restaurant was full and somewhat noisy, but not so much so as to cover up the great rock soundtrack (I would happily buy a “Best of Mà Pêche” music compilation).
Menus were quickly in our hands and, judging from the pace of the servers walking around the room, we got a feeling that service would be quick (probably to ensure as many seatings as possible in a night). We slowed things down a bit by ordering a drink from the creative cocktail menu: I chose the “Seven Spice Sour”, a zesty blend of spice-infused sake, yuzu and lime juice that tasted like an elevated Gin & Tonic. Because our server came back twice (in five minutes) to check if we were ready to order, we then considered the short menu, featuring only eight choices of “Petites assiettes” (small plates), five choices of mains and three choices of side dishes. There were also specials from the popular raw bar, but the Prix Fixe (three courses for $45, four courses for $55) seemed appealing enough that we ordered it, plus two other courses to keep up with our habit of sharing as a way to taste as much as we can.
The Prix Fixe gave us a taste of the Raw Bar, with fresh, melt-in-your-mouth fluke “flowers” served with butternut squash cubes, yogurt and a sprinkle of candied nuts. The menu’s second course, Broccoli, was a lesson as to how you can elevate a humble veggie to star level: umami-bursting red miso was elegantly brushed on the side of the bowl and the warm broccoli salad was mixed with seaweed, daikon ribbons and sesame seeds. The broccoli florets tasted as though flavor had been injected into each and every one of its tiny buds: I’ve rarely enjoyed a dish so intense in flavor. Each bite was truly magical.
As we were just falling in love with the broccoli, the third course we ordered arrived: called “Ôc Sên Sauvage”, this dish was clearly more French-inspired. Plating was elegant and we liked the creative combination of wild Burgundy snails and pork sausage, the marriage underlined by a little kick of garlic and a hint of anise coming from the tarragon. After the intense broccoli experience, we truly had to concentrate on these oppositely different flavors to catch all of their subtleties.
We barely lifted the last bites off the appetizers’ plates before the main courses were brought to the table. The 12 oz “Juliet cut” steak (from the Prix Fixe) was perfectly cooked and simply seasoned with a crunchy caramelized crust, and it was served with addictive “rice fries”: sticky rice packed into a cake, cut into chunky rectangular logs and fried to crispy perfection. By contrast, the other main, Striped Bass served with black beans, celery and shallots, was a delicate and feminine dish served in a bowl. The bass fillet, sprinkled with fried shallots and delicate baby shoots, was presented in a flavorful nage (broth).
We were almost breathless after such a flavor marathon. Food was served so quickly that we ate too fast and were stuffed – absolutely no room for cheeses or Milk Bar desserts. By the time we climbed back to the coat-check, bill paid and all, we noticed that an hour had barely passed. No wonder we weren’t feeling so well! The lightning-fast service is the only criticism I have – but then again, if we had eaten more slowly, service would have adjusted to our pace, I’m sure. Still, I think that serving three appetizers at the same time, two of which are hot, encourages you to engulf the good stuff.
So I was charmed by David Chang concept, but maybe even more by Tien Ho’s cuisine, Mà Pêche’s executive chef and co-owner, the man behind the menu. A former Café Boulud sous-chef and Momofuku protégé, Ho was recently named Best New Chef and his restaurant among the Best New Restaurants of the Year by New York Magazine’s Adam Platt. Some say the midtown venue lacks the effervescent atmosphere of Chang’s downtown restaurants, but I say that the ease of getting a table at Mà Pêche deserves bonus points. And the food is irreproachable – just remember to pace yourself.