Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Momofuku Noodle Bar
Dammit, the Emperor is back and he’s in his boxers again. I have been wanting (dare I say pining) to go to David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York for years. So of course, I, like every other foodie in Toronto, was ecstatic when Chang opened Momofuku Toronto on University Avenue. Who doesn’t want to go to a noodle shop revisioned as a three-storey glass cube with a monumental gold-toned sculpture out front?
The question: is David Chang’s world-famous Noodle Bar better than a schleppy Asian hole-in-the-wall noodle shop? Or just way more glamorous? I, of course, assumed it was better, because, can the people be wrong? Maybe that’s the question.
So you pull open the heavy oak door with its noodle-shaped outline, and there’s maître d’ Joël Centeno, a French smoothie who keeps chaos at bay in the no-reservations situation. In a nano-second, they’ve got your cell number and have promised to text when a table comes up. Up the splendid open staircase to the second storey bar, and one feels … trendy.
Anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes later cometh a text summoning you to table. The grand room seats 70 at long tables with backless benches. What a great formula! And what a great way to turn tables, ’cause it’s not very comfy. Some nights they sell 250 dinners! And why not, it’s so cool, the double-height blonde wood room with glass and steel accents, ultra-smooth service and a classic rock soundtrack.
The menu is like your neighbourhood ramen shop. Two of David Chang’s famous pork buns for $10. House ramen for $15. Is it better than your neighbourhood ramen shop? Pork belly with cured pickled cucumber and hoisin between steamed buns are absolutely better: snazzy tender pork and buns like little clouds. Equally exciting is the kimchi stew, not-too-spicy orange broth with great taste and sweetness from pork shoulder and soft oval rice cakes.
The ramen has the usual ingredients but they’re … better. Mostly.
The pork comes two ways, pulled pork shoulder and pork belly in a sweet chunk. The garnishes have been carefully composed and they’re splendid: atop al dente noodles a big pile of scallions, two crisp nori rectangles, cured cabbage, sweet fish cake and, on top of it all, a perfectly poached egg rather than the usual hard-boiled egg. Is the broth special? Nope. It’s ramen as usual broth.
Same deal with the smoked chicken wings: lukewarm mediocrities that appear to have been pre-cooked and are rather ordinary Orientalia save for their smoky scent.
So what’s all the fuss about? Is it the soaring glass and the smooth staff? The Big Apple buzz? I am thinking both, ’cause it’s sure not the food. If I’m right about that, why is New York in love with Momofuku? Simple — they don’t know as much about Asian food as we do. They are not lucky enough to have as many Asian immigrants per capita and hence as many cheap wonderful Asian restaurants everywhere. So they don’t know any better. But we do!
Momofuku Noodle Bar, 190 University Ave., $50 Dinner for two
Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.