Everything started on a Sunday, exactly at 10:28am, I was sitting in front of my laptop, holding my coffee mug, and repeatedly clicking on the “refresh” icon on my web browser, expecting to see some green checkmarks (and not only red crosses) in the screen in front of me. There was a simple reason for that, It was exactly two minutes before 10:00am in the United States East Coast, and exactly two weeks for the day I was hopefully expecting to see a green checkmark that would mean that there is an open spot for lunch at Ko Restaurant in New York city. That’s the only way to score a seat at this super exclusive David Chang’s restaurant, the crown of his Momofuku restaurant group. The reason why this reservation policy is so strict, I believe, is that it’s the only way to democratically administrate the scarce 12 restaurant seats, nod distributed in a few tables, but aligned in front a bar behind of which, there is a line kitchen and five cooks preparing a tasting menu in front of the attendees. If it wasn’t this way, I wouldn’t like to imagine the stress and chaos for both restaurant and clients, to manage the reservations in such an exclusive restaurant, in a city like New York, packed with gastro-tourists, journalists, bloggers, and a good number of VIPs from different industries. Furthermore, there is a rumor that even Barack Obama was denied for a seat, and was asked to, like everybody else, try to look for a sit through the website.
Luck, destiny, prize (or all of the above), the fact is that the so sought after green checkmark on my screen meant that I was harvesting the prize of my patience, and that in two weeks, I’d be seating at one side of the Ko bar tasting a 20 course meal (the dinner tasting menu is shorter), prepared with seasonal products, directed by Sean Gray, who for the last 3 years, David Chang has trusted the kitchen of Ko. But the reservation process is only the beginning of an experience full of surprises, secrecy, with an aura of clandestine exclusiveness that few restaurants have managed to achieve. The 163 on First Avenue is only about 4 meters long, with a steel lattice that covers the whole façade, and a small door with the distinctive Momofuku Lucky Peach. Once inside, no cell phone use is allowed, and it’s expressly forbidden to take pictures, of the room, the food, the staff, simple, no photos! When David Chang has been asked about this policy in a world taken by social networks and 2.0 content, he simply responds “it’s only food, just eat it”
Having walked through the process of getting a seat at Ko, I was finally sitting at the bar, and it was time to simply relax and let go by what Gray and his team had ready for us that day. This time, there were no notes to take, no tweets to send, or no photos to be uploaded to Instagram, the visual and gustatory memory was all I was going to leave with and the only tools to later share my experience. The tasting many, of about twenty dishes, publicized to be consumed in about three hours (some of the best three hours I’ve ever had), starts with some subtle and simple flavors and then grows on complexity and intensity. There were so many dishes and to describe them all would be, beside a challenge to my memory, almost futile, as the menu changes daily, with the exception of a couple of dishes that are always on the menu (for obvious reasons). However, as an exercise to illustrate the menu trend at Ko, there are some dishes that represent the spirit of the restaurant, using the highest quality, in season local produce. The tasting started with a simple toasted brioche with butter, and from there on, it was an exploration of colors, flavors and textures that played with each and every sense, including our emotions, named by Ferrán Adriá as the sixth sense. The menu included a lobster roll with green apple and panko, the spongiest egg soufflé, floating as an island on a clear dashi and bacon broth, a juicy cube of short rib with Kimchi sauce, and a cone with “arroz con leche” and white miso ice cream. It’s not a surprise that throughout the menu, Asian flavors have a continuous presence, David Chang is a descendant of Korean parents, and part of his cooking formation took part in Japan, so his heritage is present in most of the dishes. Other dishes included fresh fish, venison, and fresh vegetables, most of them supplied locally, and prepared at perfection.
Picture: Gabriele Stabile
Few restaurants succeed at establishing such a close and intimate relationship with its diners, at Ko there’s a feeling of familiarity and closeness from the moment one crosses the small steel and glass door, the service is casual, there is only one person serving drinks and retrieving used tableware, the cooks at the other side of the bar are the ones who serve and explain every dish. At Ko the experience is transparent and clear, everything happens in front of your ayes, from the food preparation, the delicate touches, the plating using spoons, tweezers, and small spatulas, to the informality of looking at one of the cooks tasting the dishes to adjust salt, or even drinking water from a plastic container used to store food (there are some codes in kitchens that seem to be universal). But don’t take me wrong, this informal ambience is not an impediment to offer a world-class cuisine, Ko is on the world’s 50 Best Restaurant list, and has earned two Michelin stars, but somehow manages to amalgamate its high culinary level with a modern atmosphere that attracts equally foodies and hipsters. And speaking about the atmosphere at Ko, one of the elements that make this experience so special is that it goes beyond the actual act of consuming the food that is put in front of diners, because even the music plays an important role. First because the volume is a bit louder than one would expect from this type of restaurant, and second, because it’s David himself who selects the music and creates the playlist that will accompany the meal. Because of my particular music taste, it’s really stimulating to taste such a great menu at the rhythm of Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, or enjoy, after many Sakes, a pine nut brittle with lychee and shaved foie gras while listening to the delicate notes of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Simply put, this smart marriage of great food and fine music makes the experience just sublime.
At the end of the day, it’s not David Chang’s culinary offer complemented with a great playlist, it’s not the exclusive ambience, the intense flavors of foie, venison or miso, nor the dishes created and perfectly executed by Sean Gray and his team, but is the “Dudamelesque”* orchestration of all the elements what makes the experience at Ko a symphony, that fortunately or regrettably, is only played to 12 listeners at a time.
*Rafael Dudamel is a celebrated Venezuelan Orchestra Director, currently at the FILA in LA, and a local hero in his country.
(Translated from previous article for Bienmesabe Magazine)