It's high noon in Manhattan, and all eyes are on David Chang's latest creation, Má Pêche. For those out of the Chang-Momofuku-pork-bun-craze-loop, a quick review: Momofuku is Japanese for lucky peach, and the restaurants—Má Pêche, opening later this week, makes four, plus a dessert spot called Milk Bar—are Asian-influenced in the same way that the avante-garde '70s cult rock group Can is Asian-influenced. Can came out of Germany, but its lead singer was a wandering Japanese-born gypsy named Damo Suzuki. Momofuku comes out of New York, but Chang is, like Suzuki, a wanderer. As his biggest and possibly most important restaurant to date edges towards opening, he's bouncing around the Far East tasting, testing, collecting ideas, and dreaming up new styles. Also Chang, at 32, is famously kind of a rock star, scooping up James Beard awards by the armful, starting beef with foodies out West, and cursing like a sailor.
Though he's not around for this pre-opening lunch, everyone else is: Martha and Mario and Ruth (Stewart and Batali and Reichl, for the plebs), along with another dozen of the city's more important and influential gourmands. I managed to get in because of a friend, who I'll get to later on. We're here because this is the place to be, but also because, in the high-stakes game of Gotham's restaurateurs, the risks for Chang have never been greater.
Má Pêche is a departure for the Momofuku brand, not in the food so much as the address. To understand the magnitude of this change, one must first understand that the island of Manhattan as concieved of by native New Yorkers is actually a lot more like dozens of islets, and that the East Village, home to Chang's three other restaurants, might actually have more in common culturally with, say, the area in Cologne from which Can sprang than Midtown Manhattan. Midtown is home to restaurants like Red Lobster and the Olive Garden. Má Pêche is fewer than five blocks from the TGI Friday's on 53rd Street and 7th Avenue.
Some other interesting new developments at Má Pêche (sometimes called "Momofuku Midtown") with regard to Chang's other restaurants: the dining area is cavernous—it seats more than 100; the staff is huge, too—Chang nearly doubled his overall number of employees for this one place; and there are hints of Uptown stuffiness creeping into Momofuku's Downtown vibe: the waitstaff is all in uniform, and coffee and tea service is offered. (Not such a big deal, but neither the uniforms nor the tea service will ever, ever happen at Chang's properties below 14th Street.) But here we are, in Midtown, in a space large and high-ceilinged, with a name that translates to Mother Peach in the French-Vietnamese slang lingo known as "Tai Boi." The naming is clever and apt: this is the Momo' for your Mama.
Of course, once you sit down, things aren't so different from Chang's downtown spots. Blind Faith is playing on the PA ("Can't Find My Way Home," a particuarly good cut), and several of the cocktails are named after Sonic Youth tunes. The only object d'art on the wall is a huge painting of fearsome-looking ATV-ers in tribal masks. It's from Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums," from that scene where Owen Wilson's character tells Richie Tenenbaum he's just taken some peyote, and he says this as he's sitting in front of the painting, staring at the camera, at us, along with the masked ATV riders.