“I was like, ‘what da f*&%’ !
Keep your pants on guys, it’s just a freaking pork bun for Christ’s sake!
Food tastes better when you stop reading pesky food reviews
and just listen to your own heart.”
I am old-skool. And I am a contrarian.
So when celebrated American chef David Chang’s Momofuku opened its only outpost in the Southern hemisphere to rapturous fanfare back in 2011, I was even more determined to wait out the hype.
Its infamous on-line booking system requires you to set up a Momofuku user account and log in at 10 am exactly ten days before your reservation date. Only group reservations of two or four are accepted. I smiled in joyous wonder on hearing stories people took months to secure a booking by logging on every day to try their luck.
And I balked when the media and an entire legion of Sydney herdsters sensationally lost their pants over Chang’s pork bun which by his own admission, is far from an original because the Chinese have been doing it for yonks.
The more they raved about the bun, the more I was laughing because Mysaucepan and I were enjoying our own recipe at home for the past three years. And at a fraction of the cost I might add.
Back then in November 2011, SMH Good Food Guide chief reviewer Terry Durack went as far as saying Momofuku will change Sydney dining.
Since then, Sydney’s fine dining has seen a bloodbath never quite seen before ~ Bilsons, Becasse, Claude’s and Berowra Waters Inn are just a few among a tirade of fine dining fatalities.
But Mysaucepan is always excited by new and innovative restaurants and far more patient than I will ever be. In the last three years, she waited … and waited. And on our tenth wedding anniversary this week, she pounced online and finally secured a Saturday lunch booking, the only day Momofuku is open for lunch.
In this day and age of high consumerism and a highly competitive dining scene in Sydney, I am conscious that twice the price may not necessarily equate to being twice as good.
But, I remain objective and open, to be fair to the restaurant. I am blotting out all I have heard and read over the last three years about this three-hatted Sydney establishment that had gained such high accolades.
Because when I eat, I listen to my own heart and no one else. And here’s my very own experience.
Momofuku Seiobo, Sydney
The restaurant is only a 30-seater or so and bar dining envelopes three sides of an open kitchen that bears its soul to all.
A team of chefs scurrying around simmering stock pots, mise en place, steam ovens and sizzling hot griddles add to the theatrics of Momofuku. Watching chefs at work and sitting next to strangers that share the same passion for good food adds a sense of conviviality.
As we sipped on our drinks, we were treated to some of the funkiest tunes from the 1980’s and this added to a fine dining experience with a difference. To our delight, Dance Hall Days by British pop group Wang Chung was blaring from the speakers. It was one among so many great hits by Madonna, Simply Red, Dire Straits, Michael Jackson and many more.
Our afternoon of good food and music is well and truly set.
Dance Hall Days by Wang Chung
Click on the video above and follow
Mysaucepan and I through our lunch at Momofuku.
We are advised of a tasting / degustation menu of 10 courses (including snacks) for $185 per person. It need not take the accountant in me to work this out to be roughly $18.50 per course.
Another chef tells us we will not be given a menu until after the meal although each dish will be served personally by the chefs themselves and thoroughly explained.
(Courses named in the images below are stated as they appear on the menu provided at the end of our meal.)
“I want a glass of champagne to start” Mysaucepan says adamantly.
“Whatever you say dear since it’s our anniversary” I reply.
As I down my $10 Lord Nelson Pale Ale, I couldn’t help grit my teeth a little at Mysaucepan‘s Andre Beaufort Champagne.
“I hope it tastes as good as the price suggests” I add.
Course 1: Tartlets; Parson’s nose and roe; Cep and hazelnut
Our prelude begins with a trio of snacks.
Pearls of crunchy zucchini are paired against sweet black garlic puree, sweet carrot puree with pungent mullet roe powder and pumpkin seed with sweet crab meat, all served on wafer-thin tartlets of crumbling shortcrust pastry.
Mysaucepan likes the sweetness of snow crab meat against crunchy pumpkin seeds.
“This is chicken tail, crème fraiche and salmon roe, enjoy it guys” a chef tells us.
The contrarian in me asks “No more pork bun on the menu, is that right?”
“That’s right” he replies. “We hate it coz it doesn’t really go with the rest of the meal.”
“I agree and it fills you up too. I don’t need to come here for a pork bun when I can get it at the Chinese restaurant next door” I say, clasping my hands in glee.
“Chicken tail makes no sense to me” I say to Mysaucepan. “I prefer calling it Parson’s nose …. or chicken butthole perhaps?” I jokingly tell her.
I am laughing as she roll her eyes.
“Mmmmm, this one’s so good” she says, popping a piece into her mouth.
The Parson’s nose is perhaps fried and then slow-baked until its fat totally rendered. It’s a savoury bomb blast in the mouth as beads of briny salmon roe pop around the crisp and gently chewy butt skin.
It’s a clever dish because Parson’s nose definitely sounds more exotic than plain old chicken skin. And it’s dirt cheap too. It has given me an enticing idea to keep all the chicken drumstick skin which I shred and throw away when making stock at home.
The last of our snacks is two planks of soldier toast layered with a thin slice of savoury cep, topped with flakes and residual bits of hazelnut.
The crisp of the toast and hazelnuts are gentle against the soft cep, the powdery flakes giving a pillowy mouth-feel.
“This could be a good canapé for our next home party?” Mysaucepan asks.
“Sure, but white bread brushed with clarified butter in the oven” I say, noting her abhorrence against white bread.
Course 2: Scallop, kombu, duck broth
Scallop ravioli in kombu and smoked duck broth is the first of our hot course.
A whole scallop encassed in a ravioli is tender though the pasta is a little too al dente for my liking. Call it Italian scallop wonton if you like because the Asian inspired noodles and broth are warming with its rich and smoky duck flavour.
Course 3: Beef, radish, fermented black bean
The juxtaposition of fermented black bean powder sprinkled over a beautiful coral of thinly sliced red, white and yellow radish might look jarring at first glance.
“Make sure you mix it all up well” sous chef Cian Mulholland, affectionately known among his peers as ‘Irish’ tells us.
As we toss this ‘salad’, boldly rare wagyu beef and watermelon diced into tiny half centimetre cubes in a dark and smoky burnt watermelon skin dressing come into view.
“I don’t quite like this dish” Mysaucepan immediately declares.
“I think you need to see through the thought and creativity behind it” I reply.
Tiny cubes of red watermelon paired with beef is as unlikely a union as English rock legend David Bowie with his Somalian-born wife and model Iman. It may sound strange at first, but it actually works because their marriage has lasted for over twenty years.
The brashly raw and crunchy taste of radish is warmed by succulent beefy cubes and the occasional burst of tiny sweet watermelon cubes which I almost mistook for beef fat is a surprising revelation. The intoxicating pungency of fermented black bean is truffle-like and rather sexy. It seems like the seductive ingredient so needed to make marriages work these days.
This unusual dish turns out to be my favourite for its creative ingenuity. There’s bold rawness in the radish yet its apparent dischord against the beef and watermelon seems so beautiful and so right. This dish is like the dissonant and atonal Piano Sonata No. 7 movement no. 3 (Precipitato) by Prokofiev on a plate. The pungent energy of fermented blackbean is like the Russian composer’s passion in urging troops to victory during this piano sonata’s debut in 1943 played by legendary Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in the height of World War II.
Course 4: Marron, burnt apple, ajwain
Ajwain sounds like some American rapper whose music I would rather not know about. But it’s actually a herb which originated in the eastern Mediterranean, possibly Egypt.
Dry roasted and sprinkled over two halves of delicate West Australian marron tails, cauliflower puree and a prolate spheroid of burnt apple, it adds a wonderful fragrance to this dish.
But like I said in the beginning, I am old-skool. The burnt apple might work with roast pork but pairing it with the subtle taste of poached marron is like the short and unlikely marriage between Lisa-Marie Presley and the late king of pop Michael Jackson.
The taste of burnt apple with its crispy and slightly bitter bits of skin is sweet and jarring, a bit like Jackson’s music. But it does little to complement the gentle taste of marron reminiscent of Presley’s demure persona.
And instead of cauliflower puree which has been done to death in Sydney restaurants, roasted cauliflower florets with burnt butter would pair so much better with Lisa-Marie in my humble opinion.
Course 5: Grouper, broccoli, lemon
A fillet of steamed grouper is huddled by sprigs of broccolini, broccoli puree, raw almonds and preserved lemon puree.
There is a gentle, bitter nuance in both the purees that appeal to my palate. Perhaps it’s an awakening to steamed whole fish that Cantonese restaurants do so well. The fresh crunch of broccolini and almonds adds a good textural dimension to the soft and succulent grouper and the preserved lemon puree gives the dish a well-balanced acidity.
Course 6: Partridge, truffle, endive
Two slivers of roasted partridge breast are lined against endive leaves and a black truffle puree.
How else would you give partridge a fine dining spruce up except with an upmarket ingredient like black truffle or foie gras?
The bird is crisp on the skin, still pink and succulent inside and pairs nicely with the earthy aromas of truffle puree and the bitterness of the raw endive. This one works like a Hollywood couple that’s been together for while.
This dish is definitely John Travolta and his long-time wife Kelly Preston.
Course 7: Duck, rye, swede
A slab of duck is crisp on the skin and its breast meat boldly pink. First smoked and then roasted, the duck has a smoky edge though retaining all its natural juices.
Its sweet pairing with disks of apple and swede with the occasional pop of rye grains works with the duck’s gamey flavour. It is a classic pairing that have withstood the test of time, just like Danny DeVito and his wife of more than thirty years Rhea Perlman.
In between courses, we take in the view of the fridge that houses main ingredients on the restaurant’s menu.
Whole ducks minus its Marylands are hanging out to dry for about week, so we are told. There are also green almonds, watermelon, Packham pears, Granny Smiths, carrots, sugar snap peas and fennel.
Course 8: Ewe’s curd, choux, rose
A chef pipes chilled ewe’s curd into the base of a crusty albeit soft choux pastry.
The choux pastry is topped with a biscuit crust and then baked, giving it a crisp finish. Rose syrup adds a floral sweetness to our first dessert course.
Course 9: Corn, chervil, anise
A plank of crispy meringue is a delicate canopy for corn custard, chervil sorbet and fine anise powder hiding beneath its shelter.
This is another unusual and surprising combination that works.
The brash, wheat-grassy chervil sorbet is a brusk and rascal-like Robert Downey Jr. who admitted to smoking weed when he was just eight years old.
Whichever girl he dates would seem wholesome, just like the dollop of sweet corn puree he has under his spell.
Course 10: Cherry, pistachio, gin
A rich and nutty pistachio sorbet with discs of savoury cocoa nib biscuits is definitely an Eddie Murphy being the talented and nutty character that he is.
His West Australian, bikini-clad girlfriend Paige Butcher comes in the sweet, pitted halves of gin-soaked cherries, in itself an implication of lost innocence.
The again, what would you expect when you are Eddie Murphy’s girlfriend?
Our host Ambrose Chiang loads us up with a complimentary petite four – the classic French canelé, though given a Momofuku touch of coated bees’ wax for extra crunch.
He pours us two glasses of 2o1o Maury dessert wine which he says is France’s answer to a good old tawny port. We are just about the last diners at 3.30pm as we sip on our stickies.
I guess your burning question to me is whether Momofuku is worth its three-hatted hype?
No doubt, there are some deft skill, technique and creativity in Momofuku’s food and the combination of flavours can be refreshing and innovative. Stepping into a David Chang restaurant do require an expectation for some kind of weird and wonderful flavours you might never have tasted nor even thought about.
Watching busy chefs at work and being able to engage in foodie conversations with strangers is a plus, if you’re into that kind of thing. Service is seamless and knowledgeable as one would come to expect. But being a non-dessert fan, three dessert courses were a little overwhelming for me but Mysaucepan isn’t complaining as she loves desserts.
With so many good restaurants in Sydney at the moment, I believe $185 in your wallet is good for at least two solid meals. In saying that, I’m talking about restaurants with a similar level of technique, creativity, ambience and service.
A case in point is new kid on the block LuMi Bar & Dining which is just a short stroll from The Star where Momofuku is located. Weighing in at $95 per person for an 8-course degustatation with awesome water views thrown in for free, this is a restaurant Terry Durack is now raving about, giving it a similar score of 16 / 20 as he did Momofuku more than three years ago. Inflation and rising cost of rent and wages aside, isn’t this a no-brainer?
But if I were to put on my ‘cheap-and-tasty-comfort-food‘ hat, I would say $185 can potentially fetch you ten bloody good meals or more in our fair food city though I’m merely comparing food cost and not the entire dining experience. Then again, I believe this is what most diners are increasingly demanding – flavour and substance over hype and form.
My advice is to not trust Terry Durack or me but rather just go with your heart.
That always makes the best meals.
So tell me dear readers, do you read restaurants reviews before dining at one or do you prefer to go with your heart?
Level G, 80 Pyrmont street
Tel: Not available. For reservations, go to Momofuku reservation page here.
Opening hours: Lunch Saturday, Dinner Monday to Saturday
Bar: Monday – Saturday 6.30pm to 10pm, Saturday 12pm to 2pm.