The Momofuku pork bun. There are few chefs in the world as synonymous with a signature dish as David Chang and the Momofuku pork bun. It's not even a dish that was engineered to be famous. The pork bun was an added side dish to the mostly ramen menu at his first restaurant, Momofuku noodle bar. New Yorkers, it soon became apparent, couldn't get enough of the pillowy soft bun and pork belly combination, and the support act started to become the star attraction.
That was in 2004. Chang's expansion since then has been nothing short of breathtaking. Today he has 10 establishments across New York (including five Milk Bars headed by pastry chef, Christina Tosi), four restaurants in Toronto (housed within three floors of a sleek glass building downtown), and a single outpost in the southern hemisphere, Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney headed by Ben Greeno.
2004 was also the year I started writing Grab Your Fork. Yes, this here blog is celebrating nine years online. In a neat little tie-in, I'd be dining with the guy who first inspired me to start blogging, Reid, from Ono Kine Grindz. His Hawaiian-based blog was one of the first I stumbled upon, when food blogs were new and raw and a liberating frontier for frustrated writers everywhere.
AC/DC's Angus Young looks over the glassed fridges in the dining room
Getting a reservation at Momofuku Seiobo is part of the ritual. There's been much handwringing written about the reservation system. You need to set up a Momofuku user account and then you're advised to log in exactly ten days before your reservation date at 10am -- when bookings for that date first open up. Reservations are only accepted in groups of two or four, although walk-ins can dine at the five-person bar with a limited menu. Luckily for me, Reid did all the legwork!
It's the first time Reid and I meet in person. Transitioning online friendships to 'real life meetings' is not such a strange occurence these days, but I think that food bloggers have a natural affinity to one another anyway - all we need is good food and a camera and we're already on the same wavelength! Reid has been on a whirlwind eating tour of Sydney and Melbourne fine dining and it's interesting to note his observations of local trends. "You guys are obsessed with goats cheese and beets," he says.
Course 1: Smoked potato and apple
matched with Mutemuka Shuzo 2012, Kochi, Japan
We're having the lunch degustation, a tasting menu that usually numbers eight courses for $100, although today we end up with eleven. The dinner tasting menu is $175 for approximately 14 courses.
The dining room is large and expansive. Parties of four are seated at dimly lit tables dotted between the bar and the kitchen, but couples earn seats around the kitchen counter - my favoured spot in any restaurant to enable a view of all the action.
We start with smoked potato and apple, a cloud of piped potato in a scroll of tuile. An orb of apple puree is crisp and sweet, piled with shavings of freeze-dried apple that whet our appetite for more.
Course 2: Steamed bun with pork belly
It's hard not to suppress some excited hand clapping when the famed pork belly buns appear. Although they now appear on too many hipster menus to count, Chang admits he didn't invent the original concept. One of his favourite Chinese restaurants in New York, the Oriental Garden, used to pair steamed buns with Peking duck. He even asked them how they make their buns (they bought them from a supplier).
The buns look like little open mouths, clasped around a tongue of fatty pork belly slicked with hoisin sauce. Ok, I confess, I stroked the surface of the bun a couple of times, admiring the sheen of the skin, and pressed my finger gently to confirm its billowing fluffiness.
The buns are accompanied by the tiniest bottle of sriracha sauce which we solemnly use to anoint our pork. And then we eat them, immediately torn by the advancing realisation that soon this bliss will finish, because really this pork bun is all that. The bun is wondrously light and airy - not that sodden, heavy, chewy or dry bun you often find elsewhere - and the pork is fatty and unctuous and soft with a whisper of brittle crackling across the top.
Course 3: Pink snapper, celery, mustard
matched with Immich-Batterieberg 'C.A.I.' Riesling 2011, Mosel, Germany
Petals of pink snapper bring our palates back to an appreciation of subtlety. The fish is fresh and satiny, sweet and firm, garnished with young celery leaves and a trail of zingy mustard oil.
Chefs plating in the open kitchen
Watching the chefs at work in the open kitchen is an insight into a restaurant's psyche. There's no hiding behind closed doors. What's immediately apparent at Seiobo is the heightened level of coordination, communication and efficiency at work here. The restaurant is full but the kitchen beavers along quietly, with orders called but not shouted, as the team segues seamlessly from one course to the next. The chefs dip and turn, wordlessly helping one another out. As soon as a course is sent out, the bench is cleaned and wiped down and then readied for the next one. It's hard not to be mesmerised by the performance.
Course 4: Potato, roe, parson's nose
Call it the influence of my Asian palate, but I love a dish with multiple textures. In our fourth course I'm distracted by the crunch of potatoes, the bursting pop of glistening roe on the tongue and then I discover the parson's nose. It's fried until all the fat has rendered out. It tastes just like fried chicken, but better.
Course 5: Eel dashi, turnip, almond
matched with Uehara Shuzo 'Soma no Tengu' 2012, Shiga, Japan
Our meal seems to follow an ebb and flow of pronounced flavours and then lighter dishes. The jellied eel dashi isn't much to look at, but the intensity if eel combined with an umami dashi stock is arresting, and works harmoniously with a tangle of petals, leaves and radish shavings.
Course 6: Onion, burnt leek, yolk
matched with Phillipe Bomard 'Le Blanc de la Rouge' chardonnay 2009, Arbais Pupillin, France
Tasting menus often involve quizzical looks at one another as you try to unpack and identify components on each dish. It's fun if the dish is done well, and can often provide a greater appreciation of ingredients you often take for granted. It tastes a few moments for us to realise the black powder is burnt leek ash, and what I think it is bun is actually an isolated egg yolk, cooked to a sticky richness into which we dip shards of toasted brioche and curls of onion.
Mise en place
I've chosen to go with the matched wines today, a total of six wines and sakes interspersed throughout the meal for an additional $60. Some wines are for two courses, others are for one, but they make a note of telling you this whenever they pour you a new drink. The two sakes are both interesting - especially the cloudy unfiltered Soma no Tengu sake - and they all help lift nuances in each dish. The Eric Bordelet Poire Granit pear cider is exceptional.
Reid elects for the matched juice pairing ($30) which offers a colourful parade of fruit combinations that includes apple, watermelon and more. Matched non-alcoholic beverages are virtually unheard of in Australia but they're not uncommon in the United States. It will be interesting to see if this concept spreads further.
Course 7: Mulloway, cucumber, black garlic
The glossy black dollop in the middle of the plate turns out to be black garlic, almost caramelised and balsamic in its flavour. It works well with the mulloway - beautifully cooked - offset by micro-thin slices of daikon and cool cucumber.
Course 8: Lamb, eggplant, lettuce
matched with Etienne Courtois 'L'icaunais' Gascon, 2008, Sologne, France
Our final savoury dish is the lamb, again cooked to a melting softness. Another black puree appears but it's not more black garlic but eggplant. Pan-fried lettuce is one of my favourite things but here it's much more elegant, with a baby cos lettuce grilled ever so lightly for a hint of char.
Course 9: Curd, blackcurrant, mint
matched with Eric Bordelet Poire 'Granit' 2011, Normandy, France
The curd, blackcurrant and mint is more than just a triumph of aesthetics. It's a lesson in restraint with a dollop of pure goats curd sweetened with a puddle of blackcurrant and a trickle of mint - shaped like a leaf to boot.
Course 10: Pear, honey cream, muntries
Dessert is uniquely Australian, a playground of textures of pear and honey with muntries, also known as emu apples or native cranberries. Crumbs, cream, sweet, tart and crisp, it's a dish that offers multiple variations with every mouthful.
Course 11: Pork fat caramel donut
Does David Chang have an obsession with ending a meal with meat? Previously the petits four was a messy celebration of sticky glazed pork but I much prefer the latest incarnation: donut with pork fat caramel. It's enough to get any porcine fan hot under the collar.
The donut is light and airy but it's the filling that's most beguiling, like a dark dulce de leche with a tantalising meaty sweetness. And then there's the trail of sugar crumbs across the lips. Just as the doctor ordered.
To be honest, I hadn't expected to like Momofuku Seiobo as much as I did, acutely aware of the hype and fanfare surrounding the restaurant. The understated plating and the focus on only a select few different ingredients with each course won me over. There's a brevity to what appears on the plate. Each component is there for a reason - not just for show - and each one is executed with expert deftness and considered respect. It seems to align neatly with my food philosophy.
Thanks everyone for reading Grab Your Fork over the past nine years. There have been more than 6.5 million page views of this website. This is post number 1,682.
I've still got more eating to do.
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The Star, Ground floor (opposite Adriano Zumbo)
80 Pyrmont Street, Sydney
No telephone. Contact via online form only or call The Star switchboard on Tel: +61 (02) 9777 9000
Lunch Friday and Saturday $100
Dinner Monday to Saturday $175
Prices correct as at May 2013
Reservations open online 10 days in advance
Bar (five seats - walk-ins only, limited menu)
Lunch Friday and Saturday 12pm-2pm
Dinner Monday to Saturday 6.30pm-10pm
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5/06/2013 01:07:00 a.m.