Losing a chef after just two months might spell disaster for lesser mortals, but Momofuku master David Chang has made a success of failing.
His first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, opened in New York in 2004, and a decade later Chang would tell Forbes magazine, “If you look at 10 years of Momofuku, almost everything has come out of a mistake — a terrible (expletive) mistake.” The noodle bar started drawing crowds when he added other dishes to the menu, all imbued with his iconoclastic, multi-ethnic cooking style. The near-bankruptcy of another restaurant prompted him to keep the cooks going late into the night, which (along with that ever-present unconventionality) attracted a clientele of off-duty chefs — and buzz. Today, the 39-year-old’s culinary empire encompasses 17 restaurants, including Momofuku and Milk Bar at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
So, to lose a chef two months after opening? Clearly no biggie, since there was no hint of it at dinner a few weeks later. That’s in large part because Chang’s ability to pivot when necessary is equaled by his professionalism.
Chang and his staff are known for experimenting with foods and ways to prepare them, mainly to reduce the amount of meat his kitchens use. That showed in the chickpea ramen ($18), which gets its smoky essence, heaps of umami, rich nature and silken body not from the soybean-based miso and pork usually used but from hozon, a Momofuku-created fermented seasoning that contains, among other things, garbanzo beans. More of the chick peas, flash-fried to a nutlike state, played quite well against the copious al dente noodles of the soup. This is a ramen without the pork but with all the telltale signs of it.
Which is not to say Chang doesn’t do wonders with pork, as in the smoked chop with rye XO and watercress ($36). The experimentation here was in the XO sauce, traditionally made with pork and shellfish but in this case with the byproducts of his bonji sauce (which in turn is a soy sauce containing no soy). The chop itself was moist and smoky in the extreme, the peppery watercress an inspired contrast in flavor and texture.
And where would Chang be without his buns, which in this case come in four varieties ($6 to $8 each). They were a fun gustatorial adventure, the characteristically spongy dough folded around fairly conventional pork belly with hoisin and scallion, enlivened by cucumber; shrimp with spicy mayo, pickled red onion and iceberg for a neutral boost in crunch; shiitake that could’ve almost doubled for the pork belly, also with hoisin, scallion and cucumber; and chicken karaage, crispy fried bird also with the spicy mayo, pickled onion and iceberg.
Desserts are from the next-door Milk Bar (Chang jokes that it’s so Momofuku doesn’t need a dessert program), which has a cult following in New York and beyond but for which we’ve yet to swallow the Kool-Aid. The latest snag was a compost cookie ($3), the imaginative, trademarked melange of ground coffee, chocolate and butterscotch chips, graham crumbs, potato chips, rolled oats and pretzels that’s supposed to be moist and flavorful but in this case was so hard and dry neither the flavor of the coffee nor the crunch of the chips or pretzels came through.
So maybe you can skip dessert, but don’t skip Momofuku. Because once again, Chang has a winner.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.Momofuku, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; 702-698-7000 or www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com.
The essence: Creative cuisine from the master of innovation.