Momo' for Mamas: Inside the Latest Momofuku



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.

At Má Pêche, we stare back for a while, and, at the server's suggestion, my dining buddy and I order oysters with a Thai basil mignonette, a frisée salad with tripe and poached egg and pork jowl croutons, pork ribs in lemongrass caramel, and a 12-ounce steak from Kansas. The seating is still mostly communal, so we are (almost) elbow to elbow with the epicurian luminaries in the house, and the food is still great, in the high-brow-meets-low-brow way that has made Chang famous. The steak comes with "fries" made entirely out of rice, and we try a plate of fried cauliflower in curry, mint, and fish sauce that is absolutely bonkers—reminiscent of the caramel popcorn that comes in large metal bins around Christmas, but this is light, slightly fluffy, and not too sweet. Chang is the junk food master for food junkies.

Throughout our meal, we are plied with wine from Chang's extremely young and exceedingly talented sommelier, Christina Turley. (Full disclosure: Turley is an old friend. But I can still, journalistic integrity intact, call her exceedingly talented. That she's very young is simply a fact.) The wines go with the food not just gastronomically but culturally. There's a Sauvingnon Blanc that looks and tastes nothing like a Sauvingnon Blanc in the same way Chang and his crew make cauliflower taste nothing like cauliflower. The wine is cloudy and orangish and sweet and crisp, kind of like a Riesling but not quite. It's made by Abe Schoener, who runs a label called the Scholium Project, and he calls this wine The Prince in His Caves, after the Prince of Venosa, who is said to have believed so fervently in his craft that he tore up his vines and stashed his wine in caves after he stopped being a vintner.

As Turley tells us the story, it strikes me as particularly fitting that Chang and Schoener and the Prince of Venosa have found each other: they all make their weird and wonderful creations without compromise. But how they've found each other in Midtown, of all places, is puzzling. Here, it's all about compromise. Whether you're a businessman out for a power lunch or a tourist here to see a show, you likely aren't in town, or at least in this part of town, for a culinary experience. As Turley puts it: "We won't do substitutions or leave out ingredients. We're going to have to say no to people who are used to hearing yes all the time. In this neighborhood, will that work out? We'll just have to see ..."