After nearly four years at the vanguard of the New York City culinary scene, Chang has opened amid the sterile skyscrapers of Midtown, where they're courting a crowd far different than those who flock to Momofuku Ssam/Noodle /Ko in the safety of their East Village home base (if you've already read this sentence elsewhere, it's pretty much how everyone needs to start a post on these days, so I'm sorry for contributing to the noise).
Returning to the original question, what is "boring" anyway? I'm not saying a restaurant has to be gimmicky, but, at this point, it needs to be more than just a good meal. A sign of which is that I'm endlessly craving a certain dish (or two, or three). This is an awfully high standard, yet Chang, through his own fault or not, has raised the game to the next level. So when I say boring, I'm essentially asking whether contributes to Chang's growing restaurant empire or if it just rehashes proven concepts.
The awkward Midtown location, at 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue, meant my brother and I walked from the 51st Street subway stop on the east side in the late afternoon heat for our 6pm meal. With no reservations taken (and the fact that we weren't getting the beef 7 ways), we figured that an early dinner was our best bet. Good choice. It was nearly empty when we arrived and met up with my visiting parents and local cousins (who are real dining professionals). The six of us soon took up an arm of the X-shaped table as the restaurant slowly came to life, filling up by about two thirds by the end of our meal.
Once seated, I continued to ponder the deeper meaning of my meal (or as deep as one can think about a restaurant, rather than say, the meaning of life), as well as other questions. Does Chang have a responsibility to remain at the forefront of the city's dining scene? Moreover, is a Midtown restaurant the next logical step? What is the next logical step anyway, beyond a Momofuku Milk Bar in every mall in America? All of these questions swirled in my head as I took in the scene.
Sterility may be the theme of -- although that's not necessarily a bad thing-- as this vibe is a hallmark of Chang's other restaurants. Yet , with its soaring two floors, is an entirely different space than the relative claustrophobia at Ko and elsewhere. And with so much space, they've squandered their advantage. The tapestry covering the gently curving wall is too plain and bland, making the restaurant seem like the basement of a UFO. Modest Mouse and lots of Pavement played in the background, as you would expect on a spaceship in Midtown. While I actually liked the X-shaped table that dominates the room, I probably would have totally hated the decor if not for the painting straight out of Owen Wilson's apartment in Royal Tenenbaums.
By Miguel Calderon
Like the painting, was interesting, but left me wondering whether there was something more beneath the surface. Though a few dishes were great, nothing blew me away like my first few meals at Ssam or (most of) my meal at Ko. Yet, to be honest, with such build up, I'm not even sure how to define my expectations at this point.
Anyway, on to the food: a Momofuku-ish riff on French-Vietnamese.
First up, shrimp spring rolls with hoisin peanut sauce was a simple, refined version of the Vietnamese classic, which including a fried wrapper for some added crunch. They were soon followed by a half dozen raw oysters with a Thai basil mignonette served alongside poached shrimp with kaffir ketchup. While good, I've had much better shrimp, and the kaffir ketchup didn't add anything. The mignonette provided a light, vinegary touch to the oysters that did not overpower their natural brininess.
I enjoyed the asparagus salad with crab and egg yolk-- it was served with the same mini potato chips found in some dishes at Ko-- but it didn't make much of an impression. Chicken and morels pate with pickled ramps hardly made a blip. I could barely taste anything in the pate then, and I remember even less about it now.
Mussels with crab paste and beer had us asking for more bread. It arrived too late for me, as I had already drank a significant amount of broth out of a cup. Though I'd read complaints about bad mussels, all had opened and drunk in the crab paste and beer broth. More seafood: scallops with brown butter, lime and pea shoots. Scallops were perfectly cooked, but nothing revelatory-- you can get these all over town. Same with a fluke dish served with pistachios and strawberries. While the additions accented the fluke, it was not enough to make it taste beyond what it was: a really good piece of Long Island fluke.
Fried cauliflower with mint and curry was outstanding, stained a burnished brown by fish sauce and the hot oil, with a salty kick that left us wanting more. So were the pork ribs, deeply crispy, dipped in a sweet glaze and tasting like the best Chinese restaurant short ribs you've ever had.
Though it came at the end of the meal (our waitress had forgotten to write it down), snails with a big link of pork sausage, garlic and tarragon was fantastic. It's been a few years since I've eaten snails, but the first taste brought back memories of earthy mushrooms. However, I was a little confused by the plating, as the whole sausage link was plopped in the middle of the dish, flanked by the snails. Why not cut and crisp up some sausage rounds and sit the snails on top? Just sayin'...
"My" main (sorry for the finger flexion, we were encouraged-- almost commanded-- to order family style), grilled trout with long beans, almonds and chili jam was solid. The jam escaped my attention, but the trout was expertly grilled with a great charcoal flavor. Good dish, with great ingredients, but nothing that would make me rush back for another bite or crave it in my dreams.
Bun du riz tasted mainly of cilantro, though the noodles were excellent. Roasted chicken failed to live up to the hype. The buttermilk dressing reminded me of spinach dip. Steak frites were sous vide, perfectly cooked medium rare throughout, with the thinnest of salty sears on either side. I found the rice fries to be interesting and crisp, but my brother hated them.
Since some of us had opted for the pre-theater prix fixe, we were given a "taste" of crack pie and cereal milk panna cotta, as Chang stubbornly refuses to serve dessert and coffee at the table. These servings were so small that they were essentially a dare to spend money at Milk Bar and a "fuck you" to anyone who wanted dessert, with the "taste" making the name crack pie eerily accurate.
At Ssam Bar, a rumpled poster of John McEnroe hangs prominently, bold and uncompromising. Here, Miguel Calderon's mural, shown above, sits half-hidden behind a cement column. While it's interesting to look at, I'm afraid that no deeper meaning can be gleaned beyond the surface cool. Wes Anderson had the talent to integrate the painting into a fully realized universe in Royal Tenenbaums, yet David Chang and Tien Ho, with all their skill, are still searching for a way to bring up to the level of the rest of their restaurant universe. There is serious potential, though, and it would be foolish to expect Chang and Ho to just spin their wheels, especially when so much is seemingly at stake. It's a process, but here's hoping they succeed.
15 West 56th Street (btwn 5th and 6th)