There’s no need to dilate upon the extraordinary career of Manhattan chef and (now) entrepreneur David Chang, so this recapitulation will be brief. Chang is Korean American, and his culinary stomping ground is the East Village. First, in 2003, came Momofuku Noodle Bar, then, in 2006, Momofuku Ssãm Bar and then, in 2008, Momokufu Ko, which propelled Chang into the heady glare of celebrity, multiple awards and two Michelin stars. Adjacent to Ssãm is now Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar, and in April, Chang made a move into Midtown Manhattan and opened the French-Vietnamese restaurant Má Pêche in the Chambers Hotel; chef is Tien Ho.
Much of this brilliant career is related with verve, considerable drama, good humor and surprising modesty by Chang and Peter Meehan in Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, $40), a cookbook and autobiography written as closely as possible in the chef’s own salty language. It’s a tale of fits and starts, of experimentation, insane goofiness, failure, lots of beer and incredible success. The recipes fall into the order of the successive restaurants, Noodle, Ssãm and Ko. The Asian influence is profound, but more pronounced is the willingness of Chang and his various chefs to work New World variations on Asian themes, such as making the traditional Japanese dashi soup stock with bacon or to serve Brussels sprouts with a fish sauce vinaigrette.
I have not eaten at Noodle or Ko, which has only 12 seats, but I have dined at Ssãm four times: twice on consecutive nights in March 2007, again with LL in September 2007 and in May 2009. Every dish is a revelation of strangely complementary flavors and textures, but there’s nothing weird or excessively (that is, phony) witty about the food.
I was excited to get a copy (not free) of the cookbook, and of course I wanted to make something from it, but ingredients are sometimes exotic, and while many dishes seem entirely simple, others require several prep and cooking steps before the dish is finally put together. After reading the book several times and poring over the recipes obsessively, I settled on a dish from Ko, the Roasted New Jersey Diver Scallop, Kohlrabi Puree and Iwa Nori, part of the multi-course dinner from the original menu at Ko. These are the elements of the dish: 1. the scallop (I used two for each of us since this was our main dinner course); 2. kohlrabi puree; 3. pickled chanterelles; 4. finely julienne scallion; 5. bacon dashi; 6. iwa nori, or unpressed nori, the kind of seaweed (when compressed) that sushi rolls are made from.
First, I couldn’t find kohlrabi, so I emailed Peter Meehan and asked if fennel would work as a substitute; he said that fennel would be fine. Then last week, at the Memphis Farmers Market, several vendors had kohlrabi, so that was taken care of. The bacon dashi called for konbu, another form of pressed seaweed. Whole Foods stocks konbu but not iwa nori, used as a garnish on the dish, so I substituted the dried seaweed wakame, which looked very pretty on the plate as well as providing a welcome bit of crunch. Nor could I find chanterelles, so I substituted shiitakes. (Mea culpa, chef!)
Last Sunday morning, I made the bacon dashi, the kohlrabi puree and the pickled mushrooms and put them in the fridge. No food processor used here; the kohlrabi puree is made the old-fashioned way, simmering chunks of kohlrabi until they’re soft, mashing them with a hand masher and forcing the mash through a fine sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. That night, it was just a matter of slicing a scallion “incredibly fine,” as the instructions say, and soaking the strips in cold water, where they curl around very nicely, and gently warming the dashi and the puree. From that point, things happen quickly. I had the plates ready and warmed. I salt-and-peppered the large sea scallops and seared them in grapeseed oil and after about 90 seconds, added butter to the pan and when it had melted used a spoon to scoop the butter over the scallops. This all takes about three and a half minutes, tops.
The assembly is: A smear of kohlrabi puree and then the scallops on top of that, in a wide, shallow bowl; the slices of pickled mushrooms, the tendrils of scallions, artlessly arranged; a scattering of wakame; a few spoonfuls of bacon dashi ladled into the bowl; sea salt. The result is captured in the image above. I was, frankly, damned proud of myself; the dish looked beautiful and tasted fabulous, with layers of contrasting and complementary textures and flavors that were playful and satisfying. Particularly important were the smoky bacon dashi and the briny pickled mushrooms and the manner in which they infiltrated the rich succulent sweetness of the scallops and the smooth, sapid earthiness of the kohlrabi puree.
For wine, I opened the pale straw-blond Plantagenet Riesling 2008, from Western Australia’s cool Great Southern region. Founded in 1968, Plantagenet was the first winery in Great Southern.
A few sips taken while I was cooking were quintessentially lively with scintillating limestone and actually puckery with animated acidity. The dish gently moderated the wine’s aggressive stance and emphasized the camellia-jasmine floral elements and scents and flavors of lemon and pear delicately touched with notes of lemon-grass, lime peel, ginger and quince. This is a riesling of lovely purity and intensity whose pert cool crisp character is enveloped in a seductive texture of talc-like softness. The alcohol content is a comfortable 11.7 percent. I’ll drink to that! Drink now through 2015 to ’18 (well-stored). Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.