Who would think of burning watermelon rind, then blitzing it into a blackened emulsion with grapeseed oil to serve topped with a hillock of paper-thin slices of raw radish, jewels of grilled watermelon, and a sprinkling of fermented black bean? David Chang would. The result is a slightly gritty, faintly ashy paste that perfectly offsets the peppery freshness of radish and sweet bursts of diced watermelon. Idiosyncrasies like this — and including donuts filled with a wicked pork fat caramel — intersperse the menu at Momofuku Seiobo, Chang’s digs at The Star casino and entertainment complex in Sydney.
The watermelon dish isn’t necessarily the best on the menu — that would surely be the beef shortrib (deep-fried and insanely soft), or balls of confit potato and nuggets of crunchy fat-smacked parson’s nose (the knobbly, tail-like protuberance found at the rear end of poultry), or pork belly steamed buns (the dish for which Chang has been hailed a 20th Century culinary king) — but it is an indication of the innovative foundation upon which the menu is built.
There are few tables at Momofuku Seiobo, but the hottest real estate in the house are the 18 stools around a square bar surrounding the open kitchen where a small brigade works quietly, fastidiously, and ostensibly without effort. No voice is raised. No counter-top is left un-wiped for long. No one stands idle — ever. Each chef is either slicing, stirring, sieving, or perfecting a plated meal, which nonchalant charm.
The chefs in charge have perfected the art of shouting quietly, so that underlings jump to attention but diners don’t register the command. A sudden clatter of spoons on a counter top compels a sous chef to turn sharply and glare at the young culprit in silent rebuke.
There is an almost zen-like atmosphere around this slick hive of activity — the antithesis of what you would expect in a high-end kitchen, and of the somewhat fraught online reservation process that preceded the event. It took two weeks, much persistence and a little bit of competitive spirit to secure a table, which can’t be booked more than ten days in advance and requires would-be diners to set up an online account and jump through other annoying hoops.
That alone, not to mention Chang worship and Momofuku hype, may put some diners off (it did me, for at least six months). But the kitchen wizadary is fascinating to watch. Chang’s food is equally fascinating to consume. Each dish has a stroke of ingenuity applied — be it the use of muntries (tiny native berries with a hint of apple), the addition of pickled celery (now I know how to use up my superfluous crop), or the use of grilled baby cucumber (which catapults this vegetable from the bottom to the top of my preferred veggies list).
Chang, who has another six venues in New York and four in Toronto, is nowhere to be seen on this visit. But his groovy, knowledgeable and friendly (but not in your face) crew have got this in the bag. At times four chef’s heads will be bowed over a plate: one placing the star ingredient, one adding another item, one sprinkling garnish, one wiping the plate’s outer edge.
The $100 per person, eight tasting-course lunch menu ($60 a head extra with matched drinks) is excellent value. Was is worth jumping through numerous online hoops to make the booking? You bet your little pork belly filled bun it was.
80 Pyrmont Street | Level G
Sydney, NSW 2009