This side of Kim Kardashian, are there any buns more obsessed over than David Chang’s? The Prick left Manhattan long before the Momofuku founder served up his first steamed-bread-and-pork sandwich, but even from ten thousand miles away it was been impossible not to notice the dozens of magazine articles, the thousands of blog posts, hell, even the Martha Stewart episode, all singing the dish’s praises.
Thus when the Pricks rocked up to the Star City Casino – a venue whose refurbishment is the old PR man’s mantra that “you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter” reified – on a recent evening to check out Chang’s local, Momofuku Seiōbo, we were full of questions. Would the dishes translate from New York to Sydney?
Would this be an awful, expensive, jumped-up chain restaurant, South Korea’s answer to Nobu?
Is there real talent behind the Chang brand, or is he just another bad-boy chef, an Asian Anthony Bourdain who says “fuck” a lot?
And were we really about to drop a number of hundreds of dollars on a meal based on the reputation of a couple of bites of glorified ham sandwich? I mean, sure we went on May Day, but that’s a lot of cash to spend just to stick it up the socialists.
Tucked in a discrete corner of the casino complex, Seiōbo is small: A few tables and a big bar surrounding a large, quietly humming open kitchen which gives way to glimpses of a larger area given over to prep space, pantries, and larders. The kitchen crew looks positively collegiate with its chinos, sneakers, and untucked button-down shirts. With their well-trimmed beards, coiffed hair, and expensive heavy-framed hipster-nerd glasses the team looks like they just stepped off the set of a movie being filmed at some $40,000 American liberal arts college where sheep graze in the quad and the professors drop mushrooms with their students. This may be a reflection of Chang’s somewhat unlikely upbringing as the son of Korean immigrants to the US who gave their son a very preppy upbringing of golf tournaments, Georgetown Prep, and an undergraduate degree from Trinity College in Connecticut. In all sorts of ways this New England spirit shows through: hell, this is a guy who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, knowledgably, in his cookbook to explain his philosophy of cuisine.
A pair of St Germain-and-sodas, a refreshing, low-alcohol revelation of an elderflower drink hit the bar as we consider the scene. Then the food begins. First the “snacks”: Sparkling sake (who knew?) is poured to wash down lovely little cannoli, or cigars, of smoked eel. These are quickly followed by the infamous pork buns, smaller than expected, lovely and sweet, dominated by hoisin, reminiscent of long Saturday lunches at basement Chinatown Cantonese joints in Mott Street, Manhattan. Lovely, great, but also smart to get them out of the way quick.
It’s hard to resist going through a bit of a laundry list of what came next, but it all deserves a mention.
A dish of little fried potatoes and parsons’ noses – chicken clackers I believe is the less polite description – is yummy, a little trashy in a happy way and classed up by a generous dollop of trout roe. More bird and less spud would have balanced it perfectly, though a “Love and PIF” aligoté from Burgundy stands out as a fascinating pairing that could have done with a bit more tannin to cut against the fat.
Then spanner crab, then a dish of lamb – the first off-note of the night. With its flourish of thinly-sliced radishes arranged like the NSW Government’s waratah logo, we choose to ignore the miscue. Like high school English teachers who tell their class that the blue curtains in a novel represent the protagonist’s depression and struggle to carry on (when in fact the author simply meant that the curtains were blue), we decide that this is Chang’s, or perhaps Chang’s local head Ben Greeno’s, way of taking the piss out of chefs who think running a radish through a mandolin and scattering the results over a plate is the best way to make something look cheffy and soignée.
The pacing, it should be noted, is expert and represents part of the joy of this sort of occasional treat. Here the diner is a small but necessary player in the performance art that is the meal, and at Seiōbo it is all there to see. This is not one of those degustations that is a watch-checking slog. It is more like a piece of music, with early notes and themes and being picked up, built upon, referenced, and informing later movements. It is, without making too big a deal of it, a little bit of transcendence no different than contemplating at a Dutch master or listening to a Brandenburg Concerto that serves as a reminder that in spite of all the bullshit of life, there is a better way.
Soon we see cauliflower being plated up: Is that bottarga they’re grating over the top? No, it’s smoked egg yolk, a cracker (as it were) of a dish. Short of Morton’s creamed spinach, this might be the Prick’s new favourite way to take vegetables. Marron from Western Australia – a nice nod to local produce – is as sweet and tender as can be, Mrs Prick’s favourite course of the night, accentuated by a seaweed butter that again provides a counterpoint of bass.
And then the short rib, done for a spectacularly long time (48 hours, suggests the Momofuku Cookbook – “Dude,” as Chang himself might say, “of course I bought the fucking book!”) off stage sous-vide and deep fried, served with a steak knife that’s a reference more to the cow than an actual necessity with this ridiculously tender, when thusly treated, cut of the beast. A smoky daikon puree – those funky bass lines again – A little bowl of goat’s curd dressed simply with a bit of mint oil sits somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream and works perfectly to settle down and cleanse the palate.
Not every course worked, nor should they have. With thirteen courses and nearly as many wine pours if every plate was pleasing, it’d be a sure sign that something was wrong. (Prick by name, prick by nature perhaps, but this site believes there’s nothing wrong with a menu making enemies.) The mandarin dessert is spectacular, a grown-up’s orange creamsicle, making up for the frankly odd, dry, and just out of place Jerusalem artichoke and sunflower seed number (huh?).
And all is forgiven with the final course, a plate of pork pulled off a massive glazed shoulder of pig that had been sitting like El Dorado’s, glowing and taunting us from its pride of place in the middle of the kitchen. No forks, no spoons, no chopsticks, just joyous feeding of our own and each others’ faces.
So no, after all this it is fair to say that Chang with his pork buns is no one-hit wonder. He is more like a musician whose popular numbers cede to deeper, more nuanced, more sophisticated works. Momofuku, and Chang, are much more Bob Dylan than Boots Randolph.
A few days before our meal, Seiōbo was named one of only two Sydney restaurants still standing in the (faintly ridiculous) Top 100 World Restaurants list for 2013. While such lists are on one level silly – is a meal at the supposedly fortieth-greatest restaurant in the world going to be only half the experience of a session at the twentieth? of course not – the movements from year to year tell cautionary tales, especially about the danger of over-exposure and reliance on signature dishes.
Tetsuya’s, after years on the list and with its ocean trout confit such a staple that it now makes the guide books, fell out of the top 100 this year.
Quay fell a number of spots too, though it remained on the list. This is the same Quay whose ridiculously over the top custard snow egg was featured on MasterChef Australia a couple of years ago, a dissonant bit of brand placement that saw one of the top restaurants in the world take a starring role in the denouement of a cooking show pitched to housewives and sponsored by a big supermarket chain. Last year a friend took his partner to Quay for his fortieth; they said the seafood courses particularly were miraculous, but that they knew the shine was well and truly off the place when they saw a local NRL star and his WAG ask a waiter to take an iPhone happy snap of the two of them posing with … you guessed it … their snow egg.
This is the danger of success, and something of which Chang and the Momofuku team are surely well aware. As restaurateurs duplicate themselves they need to increase their market, capturing customers by reputation – and accessible signature dishes – while still remaining true to the founder’s vision. It’s a fine line for a place like Seiōbo and chefs like Chang and Greeno, and a quick perusal of online chatter finds that while bloggers uniformly love the place, customers who may not be used to this sort of thing (one complaint is frustrated that the menu comes at the end, another somehow missed the point of the final plate of pig) are divided, to say the least.
Let them kvetch, and long may Chang and Company keep experimenting. Those who don’t like it can drop some money on the slots upstairs, or maybe go for a round or six of macarons at Adriano Zumbo’s pastry-chain across the hall. The Pricks wouldn’t change a thing.
Except maybe that Jerusalem artichoke dish.