A very well-respected entity in the food industry told me that Momofuku Nishi was a different restaurant every week. I'm not sure if he meant that it was intended to be so, or if it was just still sorting out a massive identity crisis due to an onslaught of initial negative reviews. I mean, David Chang is usually pretty impervious to criticism, and so it is that his new Chelsea venture, which began as a Korean-Italian hybrid, is still one of the toughest tables in town to procure. It's one of those go super early or late spots, but at least it does now take reservations, another thing that has changed from its original policy. Still, it does get packed, and the uncomfortable seating and tight quarters are some of the things that DO remain constant. That, and a staff of somewhat unappealing surly waiters, more emblematic of a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall than somewhere charging $23 (with an optional $60 supplement for white Alba truflles) for a plate of noodles.
And those noodles can be worth putting up with the anti-luxe conditions: the ceci e pepe that are now dubbed simple "Butter noodles" are a savory tangle of al dente spaghetti swathed in a savory chickpea hozon to mimic the classic cacio cheese treatment, and a hefty grind of fragrant black pepper. Less worth your while is Chili Squid, shreds of cabbage and squid tossed with a thinner lo mein and a decidedly fishy sauce. The noodles actually tasted fishier than the scant strips of squid, and it was unclear whether a funky fish sauce was making that contribution or
whether the squid just wasn't a la momente, but regardless it left a bad taste in my mouth, and on my mind. A better choice might be the spicy beef that I was eyeing enviously in front of diners all around me: oversize spinach elbow macaroni mingled with fragrant shreds of tender beef scented with mint and topped with a crunchy frizzle of fried shallots. I was happy to pick my mood back up with a stellar plate of jewel-like heirloom tomatoes wallowing in in a vibrant green basil oil strongly tinged with cumin. It was a glorious tribute to close
out tomato season with the exceptional fruits really starring in a sauce that enhanced their lusciousness. Just as good were the roasted beets, generously portioned and festooned with chopped chervil. A meaty walnut bagna cauda referenced again the Italian influence, but the overall impression of the dish just celebrated the great roots, regardless of their.... roots. Both vegetable dishes were obvious shares, for two or even three people. As are most of the dishes, like a soft shell salt-and-pepper shrimp, the whole thing edible although you'll end up picking the little twiggy legs out of your teeth. I preferred ridding the crustacean of his appendages and noggin', although consuming the outer shell was kind of nice, crunchy counterpart: like an all-inclusive fish 'n chips, no potatoes required.
Another eye-catcher on a neighboring table was a behemoth marrow bone served with tender rectangles of toasted milk bread to scoop out its creamy interior. This was about as ubiquitous as
To close out, I have no fault to find with the moist pistachio bundt cake, its crisp edges nutty and buttery, and the whipped ricotta with which it was served completely redefining this often gritty and maligned cheese. Nishi's version was ethereal, densely creamy yet light, and luscious to pair with bites of cake. That said, it was a fairly heavy finish to a fairly heavy meal, and if I could have yet another do-over for the night, I'd head a couple store fronts down the block and splurge on a cup of soft serve from Milk Bar, Cristina Tosi's associated dessert mecca conveniently nearby. But anyways, if my friend was right, I can come back again in a week or two, and run no risk of repeating my missteps.
232 Eighth Avenue
Between 21st + 22nd Streets