We met my mother for lunch yesterday. Mom is a free spirit from Japan. Having said this, the fact that she has lived in New York City for well over thirty years has done nothing to alter that inner core of Japanese that is so much a part of her personality. Since Alex was still under the weather (and in total denial about this fact, he's back in bed today), we decided that ramen would be perfect. It is warm, soothing, comforting, and one of all of our favorite foods. Alex and I had been to Momofuku last year and we thought that Mom would enjoy it. She is something of a ramen connoisseur so were curious to see how she would like the place.
We arrive at about 11:40 AM and the restaurant was not yet open. Alex stuck his head inside and discovered that it did not open until twelve. Fortunately it was a gorgeous day and we went for a walk around the neighborhood. When we returned it was a couple of minutes before noon and there was another couple waiting outside. The staff was still setting up and it wasn't until five minutes after twelve that the closed sign was whisked off of the door. Oddly, no one opened the door to invite the waiting parties in, they just removed the sign and disappeared, leaving the couple in front of us to hesitate briefly before actually entering.
For those who have never been to Momofuku, it is a ramen joint with a long counter in the back, bordering the cooking area so that diners can watch the action. There are windows are along the front and there are parallel counters in the open space. The front section always receives better service because the servers must walk through this area to get to the counter seats. She cannot reach them by going behind the counter because that's where the cooks work. As a result, she (yesterday it was a she) often gets waylaid before making it to the diners seated at the counter. My recommendation is that if you are in a hurry sit by the windows. The food is often served to you by the cooks but if you need drinks or to place an order or get a check, you may be sitting at the counter for quite some time.
The cook in front of us was not very friendly. Alex asked him what he recommended and the guy kind of shrugged and said he had no idea what we liked, hesitated and the suggested the Momofuku ramen to his mise en place. Then he put his head down and became very busy wiping his cutting board, obviously hoping that we wouldn't try to speak to him again. He seemed to be the guy in charge, although he was not the actual Chef, but he seemed so uncomfortable dealing with people over the course of our lunch, that I felt kind of bad for him.
Anyway, unsurprisingly we ordered a lot of food. We had the steamed buns, which were good but needed more sauce. There were crispy pig tails which were rich and chewy, nicely braised with a thick brown sauce, they were tasty, albeit slightly bland and definitely not crispy. The brussel sprouts were a highlight, extremely small sprouts which were split in half, sauteed with country ham and served with kimchee puree. These were nutty and a bit sweet, slightly overcooked, meltingly soft and blackened around the edges. The braised pig belly was unctuous and under seasoned. I didn't try the chicken wings although Mom seemed to enjoy them, but the special of the day was Salt and Pepper Sweet Maine Shrimp. Salt and Pepper shrimp is one of my favorite dishes, I love the contrast of the highly seasoned, crunchy shrimp skins with the tender succulent flesh. In this case, there was no fryer so the shrimp, which were overflowing the pan, were sauteed. The shrimp were under seasoned, served with the heads on and no directions as to how to consume them. We ate them with the skins but the party next to us went through some debate before finally taking off the heads and peeling the shrimp. The skins were soft enough to eat but the dish was lacking it's essence. One of the main attributes of the seasonal sweet Maine shrimp is that they are stuffed with roe and sold with the heads on. The idea of them deep fried with a salt and pepper coating was evocative. They would so delicate and crunchy, and you could eat the whole thing. The reality was good but not amazing, not really the same dish at all. The shrimp were fresh and still had that wonderful sweet flavor. As soon as I can get my hands on some of these shrimp I know exactly what to do with them this year. Although they do make an amazing risotto, with stock from the heads, just barely thickened with the roe and topped with the seared pink shrimp and freshly sliced scallions. Crispy salt and pepper shrimp with a spicy sauce and fresh lettuce leaves will be the perfect starter. Perhaps we can procure a bunch and do a menu.
Finally we had ramen, actually Mom & Alex had ramen and I had the Shanghai noodles. We were all pretty full at this point and that was good thing. As Mom and I waited outside while Alex settled the bill she turned to me and said "The ramen were AWFUL. Everything else was good but the ramen were terrible" In her opinion the noodles had been seriously overcooked. She had tasted all three noodle dishes and deemed mine the best but none of them actually good. The shanghai noodles were thick and much more difficult to overcook. My broth was also the richest and most suitable to winter, laden with tender pork neck, a slow cooked egg, a bit of bok choy and sweet bamboo. It needed some balancing brightness and acidity but I thought it was still a pretty decent bowl of noodles.
I actually forgot to pull out the little camera, we're not used to traveling with one. We'll try to remember it next time. Please bear in mind that this is not a review, it is just a recounting of our experience yesterday. Last year we didn't write very much about our dining experiences because we are both tough critics and because we aren't reviewers. This year we are going to share more of our experiences with the caveat that they are not reviews, they are just our experiences. Please take them with a grain of salt and enjoy.