Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 First Avenue, New York 10003
Saturday 15 September 2012
It doesn't look much from the outside. A plain glass frontage, with a paper menu tacked up on the door. Only the relative spruceness of the building, in a stretch of flyblown ethnic restaurants and head shops, gives a clue that we have reached our destination – one of New York's foodie places of pilgrimage, the legendary Momofuku Noodle Bar. Outside, a British tourist is taking a photo of the menu on her phone. Oh, hang on, it's me. Sorry, I seem to have got a bit overexcited.
Last time I was in Manhattan's East Village, more than a decade ago, this was a scuzzy part of town – it has since been gentrified, and is now just seedy – and Momofuku's inspirational owner, David Chang, was still on a pilgrimage of his own, cooking his way around Tokyo.
Chang went on to open his New York version of a ramen bar, Momofuku, in 2004, and inadvertently started a revolution. With no reservations, no fancy manners, and no respect for purist convention, Momofuku was ecumenical in its approach, mashing up influences from Japan, Korea, China and the US, and creating in the process one legendary dish – the iconic pork bun. Two soft, steamed buns, holding a thick slice of pork belly, and finished with hoisin sauce, spring onion and cucumber, it became a sensation. Only in America, and more specifically, only in the overheated, neophiliac climate of New York dining, would customers queue patiently outside the hot new place for the latest must-eat dish. Or so we used to think. Hollow laugh.
Possibly the only empire built on a bun, the Chang dynasty grew to include three more restaurants in New York, plus a bestselling cookbook, and a bakery chain, the Momofuku Milk Bar, serving crazy-sounding specialities like crack pie and compost cookies. With new branches in Sydney and Toronto, the pork bun has become the sandwich that ate the world.
So I thought it was time to go back to where it all began, the original noodle bar, before my fellow critics discovered I'd never eaten a Momofuku pork bun and had me blackballed, or barbecued. Arriving for lunch a mere eight years after the early-adopters, I felt genuinely excited. A feeling which instantly evaporated on being politely, but firmly, directed to wait for my guest on the pavement outside, in the middle of a July heatwave. Momofuku doesn't seat incomplete parties, even ones who have opted to lunch at the fashionably early hour of noon. I don't mind queuing outside a full restaurant, but queuing outside a half-empty one? Way to harshen the buzz.
Just before the soles of my shoes melted, my guest arrived, and we were in. I have a vague memory of a woody, canteenish room, with a counter, and some shared refectory tables, and Hank Williams honky-tonking on the sound system – all rather laid-back and surprisingly studenty. But it's all a bit of a blur, because I was focusing so hard on what I was eating. There were the pork buns, of course; the pork served in huge slabs, the buns light, sweet and pillowy – plus a variation on the classic New Orleans po'boy: deep-fried breaded oysters, served in the same steamed Chinese buns, with Old Bay spiced mayonnaise and pickles.
Then we had noodles – of course we had noodles – the classic Momofuku ramen, based on a superb broth, umami-rich, subtle and deep, crammed with good things – pork shoulder, which fell apart at the touch of the fork, chopped scallions and pink-swirled fishcakes, and a heap of noodles, topped with a single poached egg, which broke open to spill its golden yolk into the broth. I'm looking at the photos now on my phone, and drooling at the memory. A second noodle dish, from the daily specials, partnered cold soba noodles with warm, crisp-skinned smoked chicken, and nubs of grilled sweet corn, a wholly successful fusion of Korea and the Deep South.
That fusion was being explored by a large party at the next table, who were tucking into Momofuku's fried chicken feast, two whole chickens, jointed and served two ways; fried Southern-style, in buttermilk batter, and Korean-style, triple-fried and glazed. It looked fantastic. Apart from the chicken, which costs $100 and has to be pre-ordered, nothing on the menu is more than $16 – we really did eat exceptionally well for not very much money.
Tempting though the dessert options were – rosemary ice-cream or strawberry lemon cake truffles – we went round the corner for dessert, to the nearby branch of Milk Bar, where we took photos of ourselves eating cereal milk ice-cream, which had the flavour of milk left at the bottom of the cornflakes bowl, and crack pie, a treacle tart so sweet it left the heart hammering, even as you jonesed for the next hit.
In both places, the staff operate with the slightly glazed efficiency of funfair workers who have become immune to the excitement of their customers. But I guess if people are going to take photos of their food on camera-phones – no names, no pack-drill – they deserve to be treated like tourists.
Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 First Avenue, New York 10003
Around £20 a head before wine and service
Side orders: Use your noodles
This new big star in Soho serves delectable ramen – the house speciality is a rich, sea-salt-based pork stock with thin noodles topped with slices of pork belly, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts and spring onions (£11).
63 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7437 0071)
Small Vietnamese street-food outlet serving pho – the beef rice noodle version is scented with cinnamon, coriander and star anise.
40 Oldham Road, Manchester (0161 205 2700)
Deservedly popular Japanese udon noodle restaurant – try the smoked mackerel and green leaves in broth (£10.50).
49 Frith Street, London W1 (020-7434 4463)
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