Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Momofuku Noodle Bar: David Chang's Toronto Empire

New York’s Momofuku Noodle Bar was the restaurant that started it all for Michelin-starred Chef David Chang’s mini-empire. Influenced by his time spent working in ramen shops in Japan, Momofuku has been one of the most talked about restaurants to open in the city during the past year. The least expensive of his four Toronto concepts, which also includes Nikai, Daishō and Shōtōthe Noodle Bar takes up the ground level of James Cheng's eye-catching glass cube adjacent to the Shangri-La on University Avenue. The space is a stunning double-height blonde wood room, with glass and steel accents bordered by dark steel bridges and a sweeping open staircase. Echoing the vibe of its NYC sibling, the 70-seat restaurant has an open kitchen bar along its west wall, rows of communal white oak tables with backless benches and an enormous Steve Keene painting called Rust Never Sleeps that depicts Neil Young and Crazy Horse playing Madison Square Garden in 1978. 

David Chang, the man behind the buzz, is a global culinary superstar

Since opening the doors of his first restaurant in 2004, leading to what The New York Times dubbed "the slurp heard round the world," Chang's formula of pan-Asian cooking and French techniques, has earned him two Michelin stars, multiple awards and hoards of devotees who’ll do anything to get a reservation at one of his 11 restaurants — those that even take reservations, that is. And with a Momofuku cookbook, a line of sauces at Williams-Sonoma and an offbeat, wildly popular 100,000-circulation food quarterly magazine called Lucky Peach, David Chang is one of the world's biggest names in food right now.

David Chang's original New York Momofuku Noodle Bar

The son of Korean immigrants, Chang grew up in Virginia and majored in religion at Trinity College, after which he went to Japan to teach English. He'd always loved noodles, which he says is true of any Korean, but once an obsession with ramen hit him full-force, he entered the French Culinary Institute in New York and then did brief stints at the restaurants of some big-name chefs like Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio. By the time Chang was 26 he wanted his own place. He says 9/11 had a lot to do with it: "I had some friends who had passed away, so it was like, 'Does anything really matter?'" In 2004, Chang opened Noodle Bar, a tiny, cramped, cheap and raucous little ramen shop in New York’s East Village neighbourhood, where he poured himself into two simple staples: ramen bowls and pork buns. His initial hope was just to make it to one year, but what he was doing caught on, and the rest is history.

"Koreans are notorious noodle eaters and I'm no exception. 
I grew up eating noodles: Chinese noodles, Korean noodles...all kinds of noodles..."

His core idea was to apply the French techniques he learned at revered Manhattan restaurants such as Café Boulud and Craft to the Asian dishes he grew up eating, and to serve his food at communal tables to an indie rock soundtrack. His style is inventive, blending Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian and French cuisine with dazzling effect, and equally spectacular results — global awards, culinary accolades, six restaurants in New York, one in Sydney and now four in Toronto, Chang definitely has the recipe for success. "We’re just trying to make good food here," says Chang, whose long-time mantra has been to undersell and over-deliver. "We have to let the food speak for itself." And it does — loud and clear!  

Xhang Huan’s massive 'Rising' outside Momofuku's University Avenue location

But it's the Toronto venture that has been his biggest undertaking of the past year and probably his most ambitious project to date. Two years ago the developers of the Shangri-La Hotel approached Chang and asked if he'd want to set up a restaurant adjoining their building. Despite having offers in D.C., Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, he went for it. Chang says the deal was too good to pass up: an entire building, next door to a posh hotel, that boasts a different style of restaurant on each floor, allowed him to put the tiered, multi-faceted approach of his empire under one roof - "You don't get those kinds of offers in New York or the U.S.," he says. 

Momofuku's interior echoes elements of NYC’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, 
with textured oak walls that carry throughout the building’s first two floors

Arriving for an early dinner before heading to the Canadian Opera Company's opening night performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, we had our choice of seating: either at one of the restaurants's long communal tables or at the bar overlooking the Noodle Bar's bustling kitchen. We select two seats at the bar, but within minutes, there's a line-up of Ramen-lovers hoping to get a table, but with the Noodle Bar's 'no-reservations' policy, guests are sent upstairs to the second floor cocktail bar, Nikai. The maître d' takes your cell number and promises to text when a table comes up, which depending on the time can be a 10-45 minute wait. It pays to arrive early or wait until about 9:30pm, to avoid the ramen rush hour.

Echoing the vibe of its NYC sibling, the 70-seat space has an open kitchen bar 
along its west wall, and rows of communal white oak tables

The enormous Steve Keene painting entitled 'Rust Never Sleeps' that depicts 
Neil Young and Crazy Horse playing Madison Square Garden in 1978

Momofuku's Noodle Bar menu changes daily, and features 
a roster of dishes like bowls of ramen, steamed buns and rice cakes

The Noodle Bar’s dining room-facing open kitchen is where executive sous chef Hans Vogels and his crew cook orders. The commissary kitchen, led by Teruya Kobayashi is hidden below the premises, and shares the prep work with the kitchen. Unlike the New York Noodle Bar, the Toronto menu features only a dozen selections which arrive as they're ready and in no particular order. The 12-item menu runs $6 to $16. There are steamed buns - pork, chicken and shiitake; bowls - ramen, smoked chicken and egg, kimchi stew, chilled spicy noodles and ginger scallion; and extras - smoked chicken wings, roasted rice cakes, kimchi and pickles. 

Izumi 'Nama Nama' Sake is a freshly pressed, unpasteurized and unfiltered sake 
made by Ontario Spring Water Sake Company which is located in the Distillery District

Kimchi, a sweet and sour fermented side dish made of vegetables
and a variety of seasonings, is served in an open jar

Momofuku's cabbage and cucumber kimchi

One of Momofuku's cooks marinating chicken with 
Korean BBQ sauce, sesame and scallions for the noodle bar's $40 dish

Shrimp Buns with pickled onion, iceberg lettuce and spicy mayo

The Shrimp Bun was absolutely delicious, and rightfully so since 'buns' are David Chang's signature dish - specifically Pork Buns. Overall, the food is exceptional. Chang's cuisine brings together incredible textures, uncommon ingredients and surprising combinations into gutsy, massively delicious dishes that wow you with their subtlety even as they smack you in the face with flavour.

Smoked Chicken Ramen with miso, menma and a 66°C slow-poached egg

The Smoked Chicken Ramen, with its dark and compelling broth, was 'out-of-this-world' good. I wondered how they achieved such as rich and robust stock until I read David Chang's Momofuku recipe for his Ramen Broth and discovered that it contains no less than nine ingredients, including chicken, pork, smokey bacon, dried shiitakes and kelp, scallions, onion, carrot, a seasoning called taré, and it takes over a day to make. Much easier to order it at Momofuku!

Garnishing bowls of Ramen at Momofuku with a selection of prepared pickled vegetables

Containers of special sauces being prepared in the back kitchen 
arrive regularly to the cooks making ramen and other noodle dishes

Humboldt Squid with treviso, almond and citrus

Rib Steak with a crispy breaded French Kiss oyster topped with oyster hollandaise, 
crispy tarragon and panko, all served on top of white asparagus - the daily special for $22

Stir-fried Brussels Sprouts with fish sauce, kochu karu and puffed rice

Sticky Date Pudding

The Momofuku Cookbook

David Chang has revolutionized cooking in America with his use of bold Asian flavours and impeccable ingredients, his mastery of the humble ramen noodle, and his thorough devotion to pork. David Chang and ex-New York Times food writer Peter Meehan, joined forces in 2009 to create this incredible collection of recipes from Chang's NYC restaurants: Momofuku, Ssäm Bar and Ko. Chang relays with candour the tale of his unwitting rise to superstardom, which, although wracked with mishaps, happened at light speed. The Momofuku Cookbook is both the story and the recipes behind the cuisine that has changed the modern-day culinary landscape. Filled with gorgeous, full-color photos, and oodles of noodle recipes, this is a great read for anyone who truly enjoys food. 

Momofuku Chicken Wings
Serves 4
Recipe from Momofuku Cookbook by David Chang

3 pounds chicken wings, tips saved for another use
2 tbsp finely chopped garlic
2 tbsp chopped peeled fresh ginger
1/4 tsp finely chopped fresh chili pepper
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp Asian sesame oil
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
freshly ground black pepper
2 green onions, finely sliced on a diagonal, for garnish

Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper and place the chicken wings on the paper in single layer. Bake for 40-45 minutes, turning the chicken wings over halfway during the cooking process. While chicken is baking, make the vinaigrette. Combine together the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl, big enough to fit all of the chicken, and toss the wings in the vinaigrette to coat. Garnish with the chopped green onion and serve.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Serves 4-6 as a side
Recipe from Momofuku Cookbook by David Chang

2 tbsp very thinly sliced cilantro stems, plus 1/2 cup leaves
3 tbsp chopped mint
2-pounds brussels sprouts - smaller ones are better
Grapeseed or other neutral oil, as needed

Fish Sauce Vinaigrette:
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup sugar
1 garlic clove, minced
1 to 3 red bird’s-eye chiles, thinly sliced, seeds intact

Combine the fish sauce, water, vinegar, lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chiles in a bowl. Taste, and if it's too salty, add more water and/or lime juice. Combine the vinaigrette, cilantro stems, and mint in a bowl, and set aside. 

Peel away any loose or discolored outer leaves, trim the dry end of the stems with a knife, and cut the sprouts in half. Cut any especially large ones in quarters. To roast the brussels sprouts, heat the oven to 400° F. Toss the sprouts with 1 tablespoon of oil per pound and spread them on a baking sheet, cut sides down. Roast in the oven, checking for browning every 10-15 minutes, tossing them around with a spatula only once they start to brown nicely. 

When ready to serve, divide the brussels sprouts among four bowls, or serve it all out of one big bowl, top with the dressing to taste and cilantro leaves, and toss once or twice to coat.

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