The Art of the Lunch Deal: Má Pêche
"The move uptown has not changed the food radically but it has changed the dynamic of eating it."
15 West 56th Street, New York NY 10019; map); 212-757-5878; momofuku.com/ma-peche
Service:A major upgrade in formality from the downtown Momos
Setting:A large, awkward space
Compare to:Other Momofuku restaurants
Must Haves: Pork ribs, rice noodles
Cost:$25, 3 courses, via online reservation.
When The Clash released London Calling, their third album, in late 1979, it was a natural progression from the elemental 4/4 time punk of their eponymous first album and the rock-n-roll tinged follow up Give 'em Enough Rope. Combining the reggae, ska and rock-a-billy themes hinted at in their earlier work, the London Calling was a tightly focused tour de force—the band at the height of their collaborative and artistic powers. When Sandinista came out in 1980, it was a sprawling, far less focused triple album that anticipated the "World Music" movement by adding gospel, rap and calypso to The Clash's already diverse influences. While the album attained critical acclaim, it was polarizing for the band's fans—and the fact that The Clash had gone from playing sweaty clubs to giant stadiums changed the essential dynamic of seeing them live.
David Chang's Má Pêche is the fourth restaurant in the Momofuku catalog. And just as The Clash went from playing to kids with spikey hair, tattoos and ripped jeans in tightly packed downtown clubs to playing in large stadiums to a broader audience, Chang has progressed from serving his food from an open kitchen within the cramped confines of his East Village restaurants to a large dining room with a secluded kitchen in a boutique hotel.
The stripped-down conceit crafted downtown—communal tables, minimal formality, thumping rock soundtrack—has been exported uptown, but it feels somewhat awkward in the large missile silo-like space that Má Pêche occupies. And it has been compromised somewhat—busboys rush about constantly filling your glass with water and whisking away empty plates where downtown you would need to ask for a top up.
There are some familiar quirks, of course. The chopsticks in cups at each table remain, sprouting up like wheat throughout the dining room, and while you can get coffee at meals end there is no dessert on offer—forcing one to venture to the adjoining Milk Bar to satisfy the sweet tooth. (Those that want their coffee with dessert be damned.) And there are no reservations except for the delicious Beef 7 Ways feast and the $25, 3-course lunch special—both available online only.
The latter is an excellent way to both insure a table and get a good deal on Chef Tien Ho's unique mix of Vietnamese and French cuisines—which comes spiked with a love (and deep understanding) of barbecue.
Take the pork ribs ($16 al la carte), which might have been disappointingly soggy on my initial visit, but have been suitably crunchy and tender since. They come bathed in a sweet sauce of lemongrass and caramel and fall off the bone like the best competition barbecue.
Or you could start things off with the wonderful spring rolls ($9) stuffed with daikon, lettuce, and a choice of shrimp or meaty truncheons of pork.
Less successful was the salad with some rather rubbery and indistinctly flavored squid.
But the main course offering of the rice noodles with spicy pork and sawleaf herb more than made up for it. The dish appears to be inspired by the far spicier rice cakes dish from Momofuku Ssam Bar (perhaps it has been toned down for midtown audiences) with its succulent ground pork and crispy noodles.
Alternatively, go for the "Juliette" steak which is cut from the the end of the rib section where it butts up against the chuck, ordinarily a very tough piece of meat. But not in the capable hands of Ho, where it appears to be cooked sous vide and then grilled. Consequently it won't be rare or even medium rare, but it will be far more tender than expected, and with a hearty beefy flavor.
The accompanying "rice" fries—two thick logs of crispy deep fried rice—tastes not unlike a Bugle.
Dessert is a bit of a disappointment, essentially a petit four of cereal milk panna cota and crack pie—it seems designed to whet the appetite to guarantee that you will stop at Milk Bar on the way out.
Tien Ho's prodigious talents are as evident at Má Pêche as they were at Ssam Bar, which received three New York Times stars under his tenor. But I have to admit that I miss part of what makes the Momofuku's downtown experience (aside from the terrific food of course) so special. It is the tight, intimate crush, the frenetic activity, the traffic rushing past the restaurant's windows, seeing the cooks in the kitchen, steam billowing mercilessly from every surface all around them. And the feeling that one is involved in something fresh and new and cutting edge and revolutionary.
The move uptown has not changed the food radically but it has changed the dynamic of eating it. It is like the difference of watching the Clash in an intimate club versus a giant stadium. Intimacy is sacrificed for broader appeal and accessibility.