A chef is master of fire, wielder of knives, and clanger of pans. In the post-contemporary, urbanized, ironized restaurant of trendy eating, however, a chef can become a tyrant, a scourge, and an annoying impediment to good eating.
There are sound psychological reasons why someone decides to pack knives for a living, reasons that usually involve an inability to sit still in class, a headstrong refusal to get-along go-along, and an innate prickliness even a mother can’t love.
Chefs are cantankerous. Why then, in the name of pleasure, in the name of all that promotes good digestion, should chefs conduct their bloody rites in front of you? Although watching chefs at work can be instructive, restaurants are not cooking classes.
At Momofuku Ko, a legendary downtown designation, scoring a reservation has become a mad video game. First you supply your e-mail, credit card, and password. The cognoscenti (not you) know that if you don’t log on precisely at 10:00 a.m. you’re sunk.
If you win their lottery and finally get there, you take your seat on a bar stool above a narrow galley where three chefs work literally in your face. The Delphic menu instructs you mysteriously that tonight in exchange for $100 you will be permitted to eat whatever the chef chooses. Your only decision is one of price for “pairings” of wine and sake beginning at $50.
Be careful not to speak to the chef as though he worked in a service industry. In addition to handmade Japanese knives, he has attitude. For your trouble in scoring the reservation, this chef might very well settle a score with you.
When Mr. Henry took his seat precisely at his precious reservation slot – 6:50 p.m. – there was no else in the place. “Will you be serving us tonight?” asked Mr. Henry. “I’ll be cooking your food tonight,” replied the chef with noticeable annoyance.
Mr. Henry was not intimidated. This was not his first rodeo. He asked the chef to turn down the volume on acid rock blaring from loudspeakers, assuming rashly that song selection and decibel level had been set for chef’s prep, not for customer satisfaction. The chef pretended to fiddle with the volume knob.
Head chef David Chang chooses the music himself and like with the menu you get unexpected combinations. For music as well as for food, weird pairings seem to be the only reliable theme. If you expect citrus, look for pine needle resin.
Many dishes were stupendous. Frozen foie gras grated atop jellied consommé and buttons of mochi was truly an ambrosia, a completely original and completely captivating entrée. The venison was superb, as were the sorbets.
For the final course, fried cheddar cheese balls were entirely too difficult to digest. By the time the chef slapped the final course down on the counter, however, the wine and sake pairings, imaginative choices skillfully and charmingly poured by genuine waitresses, had worked Mr. Henry into such a glow he no longer had sense enough to complain about too much salt or too many fried things.
Gluttony is one of the seven deadlies, one Mr. Henry did not regret until much later that evening.
Sauciness is a quality that should remain on the plate.