Posted on Tuesday, 28th May 2013
Momofuku is a household name. The first of the Momofuku restaurants opened in New York in 2004 and within a year it had captured the public’s imagination with its innovative approach to Japanese noodles. Chef and owner David Chang had spent some time cooking at a soba bar in Tokyo, which was the source of his inspiration for Momofuku, a term that translates as lucky peach. A second restaurant soon followed in 2006. Known as Momofuku Ssäm Bar and serving burrito-style Asian food, it again tantalised the public with its originality. More successful than the first, Momofuku Ssäm Bar headed into the San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2009. It held onto a top 50 position until 2013 when it dropped to 86th.
But Chang’s third restaurant, Momofuku Ko, was to become his pièce de résistance. Opening in New York in 2008 as a tiny 12 seater that only accepted reservations six days in advance on an ‘online first-come-first-serve’ basis – a policy that infuriated many – it went on to win two Michelin stars, cementing Momofuku’s worldwide fame.
When a restaurant becomes that famous, the only way to go is to think like Nobu and franchise. Consequently restaurants have sprung up in Sydney and Toronto with four Momofuku branches in Toronto alone: the Noodle Bar, Daisho, Nikai (the bar) and Shoto. The latter was recently revered as the best restaurant in Toronto and offers a 10-course tasting menu that changes daily. It is the more food-centric of the Toronto Momofukus and while it sounded good, it also has a painful ‘you must go online to book at 10am on the day policy’. So we decided on Momofuku Daisho, the more casual dining restaurant where the reservations policy is far less stringent.
Momofuku in Toronto stands adjacent to the glamorous Toronto Shangri-La Hotel and spans over three funky floors. Daisho sits on the top floor and its glass ceiling not only gives the space a great sense of light, it also offers a bird’s eye view of the architectural success of the hotel. The menu is group friendly and offers a selection of big format dishes such as bo ssäm, a whole slow cooked pork butt with a dozen oysters, white rice, bibb lettuce and a Korean ‘ssäm’ BBQ sauce (serves 6 to 10, $240 – about £150). But the most delectable sounding of the big format dishes was the prime beef rib-eye which is dry-aged for 65 days and roasted for about 2-3 hour (serves 6 to 8, $600 – about £387). Reading about the big format dishes made my mouth water, but as we were only two we settled on the smaller plates on the menu.
For something to nibble on while we ordered, we were presented with some delicious pickled cucumber with garlic, chili and soya sauce. There was a soft crunchiness coming through from the cucumber that gave it a really good texture, and the gentle pickling meant the cucumber was not too acidic and delicately flavoured.
The restaurant recommends about three plates per person and our first plate was the Humboldt squid (Quadra, British Columbia) ($14 – about £9), a pretty looking dish that included some clever elements such as the daisy capers, so called as they were unflowered daisy buds that had been pickled to render them with a caper-like texture and acidic taste. The touches of celery and dill were also nice additions to the squid, and for garnish there were some wonderfully crunchy potato chips and an interesting dehydrated buttermilk yoghurt snow. But for all the interesting elements that this dish had in it, it could have been more flavoursome. I found the dish a little flat as a whole as it did not pack the punchy tones that one might have hoped for. This was a case of clever but dull.
A dish of rice cakes with pork sausage, Chinese broccoli and tofu ($15 – about £9.65) was hearty from the pork sausage. But it was also extremely salty and because there wasn’t much sauce, the effect was that it was a little dry on the palate. The rice cakes were somewhat chewy and that gave the dish an interesting texture.
Secreto Ibérico pork (Kunan Farms, Ontario), pan-fried and sliced ($26 – about £16.70) was mouthwateringly tasty and satisfying. Eaten with the accompanying clams in XO sauce and a garlic aioli in a ‘do-it-yourself’ bibb lettuce roll, the meat proved succulent and juicy, and oozed with lots of deliciousness. The aioli was really well made and was a great match for the pork. However, the clams in XO sauce were too salty.
The vegetable dishes were also rather triumphant. A dish of greens and ramps (a wild leek) with a shellfish jus and yuzu kosho, a chili paste made with yuzu ($13 – about £8.35), gave way to an unctuously rich flavour. Maitake mushrooms with minus 8 vinegar, Monforte Toscano cheese from Niagara ($15 – about £9.65) was also impressive. The mushrooms were meaty and deep with flavour, and the cheese added nuttiness to the dish. Toasted panko crumbs provided crunchiness to the mushrooms, and some crispy watercress and a creamy chickweed puree completed the dish.
Momofuku Daisho proved to be an interesting experience with some innovative ideas and conceptually interesting compositions. The technicality and originality of the dishes warranted both respect and admiration, even if some misjudged seasoning meant that not everything was quite on the mark.
But I couldn’t help but find the Momofuku Daisho experience a little soulless. Maybe it was the rather uncomfortable seating or the clinical feel of the dining room. Whatever the reason, Momofuku Daisho didn’t necessarily warm the cockles of my heart. It was a restaurant that was nice to try, but not one that really inspired me to want to go again. The service was attentive.
Food rating: 3.5/5
Service rating: 3.5/5
Price range: About CAD$40 to CAD$80 (about £26 to £52) per person. Excludes added taxes of 13%, service and drinks.