What Was the Tasting Menu?
Did Momofuku Ko die so a regular dining experience could live?
The last time I went to Momofuku Ko was in 2021. It was our first nice meal indoors since the pandemic had started and the first time we had dinner in the restaurant since it moved. I wasn’t too fond of the space. It was cold and a little sterile, one of those new places off the Bowery that feels like it belongs in a suburban shopping plaza and not on some part of the street where Johnny Thunders probably copped smack in 1978. I get why any chef would rather operate out of a newer building in New York City, given the myriad of issues that come with just trying to live in some of the pre-war spaces in Manhattan (old pipes to rotten floors), but the experience was a little cold. And you know what else was cold? The chicken. But that was on purpose. It was cold fried chicken, like what you’d eat when you’re hungry at 3 in the morning and too lazy to heat up leftovers. They also had a delicious take on the New Jersey mustard pizza that I’m very fond of, and if it was just those two things, then I would have been happy.
But you couldn’t just go to Ko and get a piece of cold fried chicken and some pizza. It was part of a tasting menu, one that cost over $200 before drinks and tip. And for the life of me, I can’t tell you what most of that money went to. Obviously, we had enough booze since there are pictures of me happily walking out with my box of leftover pizza, but I like to think of that as the moment when I personally had come to the realization that the tasting menu was over. It had gone the route of the “cocktail movement” that it sprung up alongside, that time when bartenders who just wanted to pour whiskey shots and pop open beers were forced to learn to make a bunch of 1920s cocktails because bar owners went to Death & Co. once. The cocktail thing lost its luster because everybody was doing it and not that many people understood how to do it right. The same could be said about the tasting menu thing. I had no problems with my last meal at Ko, but since I’d eaten there before, I was a little surprised they were relying on something goofy like high-end cold chicken and a take on pizza most people find disgusting.
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It turns out that the cold fried chicken and mustard pizza will be my lasting memory of Ko. David Chang recently announced it was closing up, not long after closing Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I don’t know what all this means for Chang and his businesses, and I hope there are new places opening up in the future because I’ve always had a good time eating at his restaurants, but I do think it says a lot about the state of the tasting menu. It’s just not what people want these days. Another place I really love, Oxalis, also recently announced it’s shutting the doors at the current space. The Instagram post announcing the closing left me hopeful that the Brooklyn spot would be reopening elsewhere, but I couldn’t help but think about how the experience changed when they switched over to a tasting menu. The service was still top-notch and the food was still wonderful, but there’s just this feeling that you’re locked into something with a tasting menu. That’s how I started to feel anywhere we ate with one. It didn’t feel natural, almost like too much of a show, and the flow of the meal was thrown off. The server walks over and goes, “For our next course, we have blah blah blah with some seasonal blah blah blah, and as an added treat, some grated blah blah blah from our rooftop garden.” I know the whole idea is you’re supposed to appreciate and contemplate your food a little more, but I could do that just the same with a normal meal. Maybe now we’ll start getting back to that.