Dinner at Momofuku Ko.

Momofuku Ko, 2I’ve read Momofuku Ko reservations are really tricky to get, which is why I surprised that I was able to snag a pair on my first try.  To make a reservation, you need to make an account on the company website, then log in at ten AM one week before with the hopes of getting through to the actual reservations page.  When I created an account last week, I didn’t expect to get a table (well, two chairs — I’ll tell you about that in just a sec) on my first try, but stranger things have happened…

So let’s say you are able to get reservations to Ko.  Here’s what your night might be like, if you had been dining next to me.

First, we’d find a convenient parking spot directly in front of Momofuku Noodle Bar.  Then we’d stand outside Ko, looking at the exterior — which New York Magazine describes as being Momofuku Ko, 1“sheathed in what looks like high-tech chicken wire” — before heading inside, giving the hostess our printed-out reservation confirmation, and sitting at the twelve-seat bar.  Our backless wooden barstools would be close together, but still, we’d be able to overhear the couple on my left flirting and the foursome to your right offering to buy the chefs a beer.  We’d chat, clink our glasses together, and watch the three men in the kitchen work.  We wouldn’t take pictures of our food (since it’s not allowed) but we’d eat.  And we’d eat well.

We’d start with two flat-bottomed ceramic Chinese soup spoons, one of which would be cradling something like a creamed corn; the other would hold a bite of shrimp suspended over a thick gel that tasted like miso soup.  After slurping up each of these and arguing which was our favorite — mine would be the shrimp, you’d vote for the corn — we’d have a few horseradishy greens with Spanish mackerel crudo dotted with some refreshing Meyer lemon zest.  The black pepper biscuit that followed, presented to us on an angular slab of slate alongside a housemade chicharrón, would be so delicious that I would run several scenarios through my head on how I’d be able to distract you enough to steal yours.  Instead, I’d tell you how envious I am of Strawberry Shortcake, and how she’s able to live in her favorite food.

“I’d move in here,” I’d say, brandishing my biscuit.  “Can you imagine,” I’d ask, “walls made of this?”

My dreamy rambles, rather than distracting you, would instead befuddle me so much that I would forget in what order some of our courses arrived.  At one point, a chef would place in front of us two bowls of ravioli made with a fragrant matsutake mushroom and yet another piece of slate.  On it, he’d set a cup of traditional matsutake tea and a perfect little cube of French toast.  We’d comment to each other about the toast’s lovely custard center, and each ravioli’s creamy interior.

It would be impossible for us to know that we’d be talking about a gently boiled egg days later.  Split open, its yolk would be smothered in generous spoonfuls of caviar that spilled onto teensy little fingerling potato chips and the creamiest buttery onions.  We’d scoop each black pearl up and smile at each other over our empty plates.

We’d rock in our Momofuku Ko, 3seats to music by the Rolling Stones while spooning short-rib tortellini out of a clear oxtail consommé; we’d tap our fingers against bowls of monkfish bobbing a spicy lobster and shrimp broth to The Hold Steady; we’d ooh as the veritable cloud of grated frozen foie gras floating over a Riesling gelée and slivers of lychee melted in our mouths while Bruce Springsteen played in the background; we’d aah with Elton John over a celeriac purée sprayed out of a whipped cream canister next to venison and shaved Brussels sprouts.

Our two desserts would be cause for more debate — I’d favor the animal cracker ice cream over heirloom peaches and doused in carbonated peach juice, even though I’d confess to you that I’d never had an animal cracker before. I don’t have a frame of reference, I’d tell you, and you’d reassure me that the flavor was spot on, even if you preferred the black pepper crumble with macerated blueberries, a tangy ice cream and black pepper crème fraîche.

Before we slipped back into our coats, we would clink our glasses and finish our beers — Ommegang Hennepin for me, and Two Brothers Domaine DuPage for you.  As we made our way home, we’d discuss our night, the food and, of course, the price.  $125.00 is a lot for one person’s meal, we’d reason.  $350.00 (two dinners, tax, tip and two beers) is even more.

“Was it worth it?” one of us would ask the other.

“Yes,” the other would say, “but I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone because of it.”

Then I’d think, driving through the East Village, I’d come back for that foie.  But would you?

Momofuku Ko
163 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003

Momofuku Ko on Urbanspoon

A few things to note: the photo of Momofuku Ko’s interior is from their website, the restaurant currently does not accomodate vegetarians, and has a general policy of not providing a printed menu.  As a result, my description of my meal is based solely on memory.

Dinner at Sel Gris.

I recently realized that I’m unbelievably addicted to making reservations. At this point I think OpenTable just might be one of my most favorite websites to visit during a slow work day. It’s got me totally spoiled; I love being able to walk into a restaurant, hang up my coat and be seated immediately. I like not being able to worry about crowds or table availability, and I simply love having a schedule. It’s the sense of promise, I think, that really gets me — the idea that, on this night, everything will go as planned.

Too bad the city of Portland doesn’t agree. Only fifty-eight restaurants are listed on OpenTable, and at least five of those are branches of national chains. I wasn’t going to let that stop me; after all, it’s not as if I need OpenTable. I’m perfectly capable of picking up a telephone. What I quickly learned, though, was that few places in Portland even take reservations, let alone those for a party of two. Luckily, Sel Gris is one of the few that do.

When I’m at a restaurant I’ve never visited before, particularly one as highly-lauded as Sel Gris, I get very, very excited; in this case, I was practically clapping my hands and hopping up around in anticipation. My eagerness was not only about the food, which I was thrilled about, but also because of where Keith and I would be seated: the Chef’s bar, with a view of the kitchen. I was so looking forward to watching the chefs work, as well as ogling things such as the stove and multitudes of silvered pans, so imagine my disappointment when I found that our seats were at the section of the bar that had a view of, well, the bar’s stores. I was so disheartened, I don’t know if I can even thoroughly describe it.

I try not to look at a restaurant’s menu before I go in for the first time; I admit that sometimes I do peek but in this case I held myself back, and good thing too — there were too many amazing-sounding dishes to choose from. For someone who can waffle between options, more time to deliberate can be a bad thing. As it was, I was already going back and forth between several starters and a handful of entrées — did I want crispy sweetbreads with apple butter? The foie “two ways”? The pan-roasted scallops? The escolar with mussels and clams? The answer to all of those questions were, and are, a resounding yes. Of course, a decision ultimately had to be made, but it felt as though it took me a million years to get there.

In the end, I finally decided that the soup d’Jour ($8.00) would be the appetizer for me. A preface: Oregon is hot and humid, and this soup was just the ticket. Now I know how crazy that makes me sound, so let me explain — this was a chilled melon gazpacho. I’ve had “refreshing” soups before — terrible refreshing soups, I should say — but nothing ever like this. Simultaneously light and satisfying, it was also both sweet and savory, thanks to the herbs and (I think) shallot flavoring the dish. Afterward, Keith asked Chef Mondok what exactly was in the soup, and it turned out the answer was pretty much every melon under the sun. At the risk of sounding completely cliché, but each spoonful tasted like summer. Honestly. It’s a completely cravable soup, one I want to eat every day until the leaves change.

You would think that the gazpacho would be enough to satisfy me, but, really, no amount of that dish would be enough, except perhaps by the vatful. I’m not kidding, which is why Keith and I decided to split another appetizer, the Mussels “Billi-Bi” — chorizo, tomato, saffron and cream ($12.00). Recently Keith’s developed a little crush on shellfish, mussels in particular, so it feels as though we’ve been eating them at every possible opportunity and Sel Gris was no exception. Traditionally, Billi-Bi is a cream of mussel soup made with the same ingredients listed but like I said the other day, who cares about things such as tradition when the end results are so wonderful? I only wished that, like my dream of limitless gazpacho, we had an endless supply of grilled bread — the better to sop up the juice with.

The entrée I initially wanted to order were the scallops, but they were sold out, unfortunately. Bad timing on my part, I suppose, but the dish I ended up with was a great finish on a summer’s night. The linguine “Barigoule” — pasta, goat cheese and peas, alongside artichoke hearts and two different types of mushrooms ($19.00) — was light and summery, and those peas were to die for. As with the mussels, there was a spin on something more conventional; in this case, it was the artichoke and mushroom combo, as a barigoule is generally comprised of just artichokes. Again, though — what’s the point of convention? I much prefer innovation, which is really successful here.

I mentioned earlier that I was upset about our view of the eau-de-vie bottles, but by the end of the meal it was almost as if I had forgotten all about it. I do think that saying that the diner can see into the kitchen from the section of the bar where we were seated isn’t entirely true, but I can’t deny a few things. First, Chef Mondok brought each of our plates to us and answered any questions we had about our meal. Second, the service was fantastic, though I’m positive this is the case throughout the entire space. Third, as things in the restaurant were winding down and other diners began filtering home, Chef Mondok wandered over to us and we had a nice little chat covering topics ranging from wines to urban farming (he grows his own produce literally in his own backyard, as well as provides food to local co-ops, CSAs and other restaurants) to Portland’s best pubs (Horse Brass, Concordia Ale House). He was so ardent and unreserved about his likes and dislikes that it was positively infectious; we were literally taking notes.

No matter how glum I was about not being able to watch the flurry of activity in the kitchen without craning and straining my neck, the quality of the food and hospitality more than made up for my original thoughts. Not only that, the tonal gray-on-gray décor is so chic that it’s actually feels good to be seated in the space. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted so badly to live within walking distance to a restaurant before; I know that we would certainly become regulars, turning Sel Gris into our go-to spot.

Sel Gris
1852 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, Oregon 97214

Sel Gris on Urbanspoon