má pêche (15 W. 56th St.)
It seems somehow appropriate, if not altogether poetic that David Chang's newest restaurant, Má Pêche, resides only a few blocks away from the Museum of Modern Art, which presently features an exhibition entitled Picasso: Themes & Variations. Just as Picasso can somehow beautifully depict a bosom using two ordinary circles, Chang combines simple, fresh ingredients to create surprising impressions. Rice transforms into a french fry and strawberries become pesto. Not that David Chang needs any more hype or acclaim. In addition to numerous James Beard Awards, this 32-year-old trailblazing chef was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2010.
A veteran of Craft, Mercer Kitchen, and Café Boulud, Chang opened his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in 2003 in the East Village. In doing so, he took a gigantic sidestep from the more hoity toity kitchens of his training, serving up affordable Asian food juxtaposed with classic European technique. Three restaurants and seven years later, Má Pêche opened in April of 2010, marking the first departure from the East Village. And despite scattered reviews to the contrary, I found that Má Pêche brings with it just as much excitement, innovation, and culinary brilliance as any of the predecessors in the Momofuku family of establishments. Under the guidance of Tien Ho, co-owner and executive chef, this "mother peach" breathes fresh life into midtown, while maintaining a historic tradition of excellence.
Adjacent to the lobby for the Chamber Hotel sits the entrance to Má Pêche, which is actually the Midtown location of Momofuku Milk Bar. The feel is more Tokyo than Midtown Manhattan, and diners are cleverly forced to whiff the baked treats and flavored milks before descending the stairway into the main dining room (where no desserts are served, incidentally, rendering a departing pause in the Milk Bar necessary for those with an insatiable sweet tooth).
It is probably significant to note that my most recent visit to the Milk Bar was my third visit in just a few months. Each time I purchase a cookie or pie, I have failed to photograph it before devouring it. Sadly, this visit was no exception. Imagine the crack pie, a toasted oat crust with a gooey butter filling (pecan pie sans the pecans, if you will...) or the blueberry cream cookies with dried blueberries and milk chips. Not to mention the compost cookies (pretzels, potato chips, ground espresso, oats, butterscotch, and chocolate chips). Because I have no self-control when it comes to these ridiculously delicious treats, you have to simply trust me on this one, even without a photo. The Milk Bar is reason enough to visit.
As Má Pêche does not take reservations (unless it is for one of the tasting menus), you can easily pass the time at the bar, which is sort of a balcony over the sunken main dining room. Along with beer, wine, and sake, several unique cocktails are served up in harmony with Chang's eclectic style. Consider a classic, Dark and Stormy, laced here with ginger syrup, lime, & seltzer in lieu of ginger beer.
Descending from the lounge into the main dining room, the cruciform communal table commands attention. Is it a cross? A paring knife? A seaweed pole? The simplicity of the room is refreshing, and as you escape into this elysian sanctuary, the midtown melee is quickly forgotten. Though simplistically elegant with soaring ceilings, there is no pretense here. A stack of dentist bibs serve as napkins, and cups full of disposable chopsticks serve as cutlery.
While we contemplate the menu, my friend has ordered the "côtelletes de porc" (and I instantly wonder, did the chef mean to spell it wrong on this menu of a made-up blend of French and Korean, or is it an intentional jab at the clientele?) "I have been fantasizing about these pork ribs since I had them a month ago. I'm sorry, but I need an order now." She is practically trembling in withdrawal, and I can see that she's quite serious.
When the ribs ($16) arrive, I, too, become instantly addicted. More like lollipops of juicy pork, they have been cooked to a tender perfection, with just a hint of outer crispness, the meat sliding effortlessly from the bone into my mouth. And the flavor, oh my god, the flavor. Like some Thai candied apple, these little chops have been glazed in lemongrass caramel, the salty meat dancing with a citrus-ginger butterscotch. I've never tasted anything quite like this before, and I cannot fathom ever enjoying pork ribs to this degree of sublime delight ever again. Traumatized by the now-empty plate of bones and caramel, we place a second order. This place is magical.
The fried cauliflower ($12) is extremely similar to a dish I recently enjoyed at Momofuku Ssam Bar, the florets here having replaced the brussels sprouts and crisped rice. The gently crisped cauliflower has been tossed with curry, mint, and a fish vinaigrette. What is oftentimes a boring and relatively bland vegetable has been whimsically morphed into an unfathomably savory seasonal special plate. Check out the recipe as posted in Time. If Tien Ho can render pork into a dessert and cauliflower as a main dish, what else can he do?
Even the spring rolls become an experiment in texture. Delicate rice paper gift wraps sweet prawns, lettuce, and daikon. As I dip it into the ramekin of smoky and sweet hoisin peanut sauce, I expect the cool, crisp snap of the vegetables and the succulent shrimp. But the gentle explosive crunch of cracker I do not expect, even though I now notice it waving at me from the end of the roll. Somehow in Chang's world, even common dishes become playful with just the slight crackle of texture from a cracker.
Next came a salad that I would gladly nosh on every single day of the year. Who knew you could garnish a salad with crispy golden potato chips?! French chefs use these fingerling crisps as faux scales for the presentation of fish. Here they simply crown a dish of hearty stalks of white and green asparagus, which has been sort of Lincoln logged over a nest of egg yolk and luscious lump crabmeat, adorned with a lavender snowfall of chive stems and blossoms. The bitterness of the greens with the rich buttery shellfish, and the crunch of the chips, all dusted with chives... again, I've never had anything that tastes like this before. It's almost like a deconstructed crab cake benedict, and I'm in love.
On one side of the room sits a crudo bar, and we just can't help but watching the sparkly dishes flying from the window. Poached shrimp with kaffir ketchup, squid salad with scallions and peanuts. Even though we've opted for the $25 prix fixe (the best way to enjoy two plates and a small sampling from the upstairs Milk Bar without blowing the bank) it seems a shame that we don't try at least one of these gems from the ocean.
The cá fluke cru (from upstate NY) is absolutely transcendent. This delicate, white fish is buttery, smooth, and melt-on-your-tongue tender, crowned with ruby spears of strawberries. But that's not it. Inside each fluke rollatini is a goosebump-inducingly sweet, tart, nutty and salty mini salad. I ask the waiter, and he smiles. Oh, you know, it's just your typical strawberry, arugula, and pistachio pesto.
Next comes a gorgeously marbled 12 oz. juliet steak from Creekstone Farms. While it's a delicious-enough piece of meat, I'm going to be quite honest that the star of this steak frîtes were the the frîtes themselves. I will probably always remember my initial reaction. As I bit into the oversized fry, a golden crunch almost splashed flavor into my mouth. Was that bacon? Movie theater popcorn butter? Oh wait, now the inside is warm and soft, almost like a hearty potato puree. It can't be potato... there's no way. But it tastes like the best potato fry on earth. Salty, buttery, and sinful.
Truth be told, it's merely a brilliantly conceived rice fry. There's no butter, no bacon. They're simply pan-roasted in canola oil, accompanied with a creamy Thai chili aioli with just the right amount of kick. By now, I feel like a broken record, but we sit giggling at the table. Nothing has ever tasted like this before.
Rice has been transformed, yet again, this time into noodles. Broad, thin, flat rice noodles have been coiled into delicious pasta straws with a crisp outer crunch succumbing to a tender and chewy al dente middle. Tossed with spicy pork sausage and sawleaf herb (almost like a very strong cousin to cilantro), it's a beautiful dish that marries earth, air, and fire with simple ingredients that combine for a different flavor profile in almost every bite.
Though we were extremely sad that such a playfully delicious meal was drawing to an end, we now sat eagerly anticipated a sweet nibble, vividly recalling the aromas of baked deliciousness hovering in sugary clouds above us at the Milk Bar. Our server offered us double espressos, and had to check to see if they carried Sambucca black, and alas, our dream became a little fuzzy. Even though Má Pêche may be intended as a more laid back, spunky and funky alternative, if we're dropping a hearty price tag for lunch, it would be nice for the server to know the liquor selection. And then the check arrived.
My dining companion and I exchanged confused looks across the table at one another. The menu had said "Milk Bar" for the third course. Did we need to show a receipt upstairs for dessert? I could have sworn our server had promised a few petite fours at the conclusion of the meal. We waited nearly ten minutes for another server to appear, and then we asked if we could see ours. "Oh, he's stepped away for a little bit..." When he finally reappeared from his break, we asked about the aforementioned desserts, to which he merely laughed and vigorously patted me on the back as if to say "oops!" as though we were childhood best friends.
If I don't know your name, I don't want you to touch me... especially if you are denying me something for which I have already paid...
The bites, though small, were infinitely delicious, and I soon forgot the minor snafu at the end of the meal. The cereal milk pana cotta tasted like a delicate custard had formed at the bottom of a bowl of Fruity Pebbles. It was gorgeously dusted with the powder of corn flakes. And the mini crack pies lived up to their name. Gooey buttery filling in an oat cookie crust sprinkled with confectioner's sugar.
Though we were content and full, and all smiles again as we left, you had better believe we stopped for a moment in the Milk Bar to purchase some treats to take home. Anything possible to extend the memory of such a uniquely delicious meal that even occasionally subpar service couldn't possibly tarnish.