David Chang may have risen to fame and fortune on the crest of the great nose-to-tail pork-belly revolution, but as any self-respecting Momofuku groupie will tell you, times have changed. Sure, you can enjoy a bountiful bossäm pork haunch at select Chang outlets, but chicken is the protein of choice at the chef’s latest fast-casual venture, Fuku, and the delivery service, Maple, in which he is a prominent investor, is dotted with all sorts of weirdly chaste-sounding items (bulgur-and-tofu bowls, anyone?). Like lots of prominent philosopher-king chefs these days, Chang is preoccupied with weighty issues (sustainability, waste, the fast-vanishing food supply), and his public ruminations on these subjects, and the future of restaurant culture in general (“The supply side of food freaks the shit out of me,” he was quoted saying in GQ recently), have taken on an increasingly earnest, even gloomy tone.
Whether by design or not, many aspects of this new, slightly dystopian vision are on display at the Momofuku empire’s latest New York restaurant, Nishi, which opened a couple of months ago in a typically loud, typically cramped, typically Changian space among the nail salons and old laundromats along lower Eighth Avenue. Like in the famous flagship establishments in the East Village, the walls are sparely decorated (there’s a futuristic Escher print on one of them), and the surfaces are mostly covered in tan, polished wood, like the inside of a modishly designed ship container. Diners perch on backless, box-shaped stools and dine close together, like in a cafeteria bar. There is, mercifully, no tipping at this restaurant of the future, the menu is economical, almost to a fault, and many of the carefully portioned, mostly local, seasonal dishes seem designed for a more Spartan fine-dining era, when costs are high, resources are tight, and largesse is no longer taken for granted.
Or so I thought to myself as the first wave of slight, carefully articulated appetizers pattered gently down our snug corner of the noisy dining counter, laid out in dainty glass finger bowls and simple white plates. One bowl contained a helping of tiny, crisp-fried head-on shrimp, which was excellent in every respect (pearly inside, dusted with sansho pepper and garnished with wedges of lime) but looked less like an actual restaurant appetizer than like something you’d enjoy at a Tokyo bar with your freshly poured drink. We also tasted some housemade tofu, the righteous blandness of which was mitigated by a scattering of smoked trout roe, and three kinds of crudi (unremarkable shreds of black bass ceviche; tasty, faintly charred mackerel; diaphanous ribbons of beef flavored with dashi and winter radishes), which the ravenous Chang faithful at my table gobbled in roughly ten seconds flat.
Chang and his executive chef, Joshua Pinsky, have described Nishi as an exploration of the mash-up possibilities involving Asian and Italian cuisines (the name means “west” in Japanese), and while some of their experiments in the slightly more robust noodle category are interesting, others make you wonder why anyone would dare tinker with these durable classics in the first place. An unfortunate marriage of Cantonese chow mein and a clam-topped version of Catalan fideos-style pasta wasn’t half as satisfying as either of the originals and, at $32 for a meager, non-family-size serving, was roughly six times as expensive. I had similar issues with the weirdly pallid spicy beef Sichuan noodles, although the fiercely addictive, neo-Korean version of chitarra pasta, doused with chiles and an XO sauce bristling with all sorts of funky, fermented fish goodness, got more deliciously addictive as we ate it.
The Momofuku empire is built on unexpected taste combinations like this, of course, the kind that worm their way into your brain and won’t go away until you return for a second fix, and maybe even a third one after that. In addition to the strange, Pan-cultural chitarra, I might return to this new Chang restaurant, with a little prodding, for the kitchen’s velvety, much-Instagrammed take on cacio e pepe (instead of Pecorino, the perfectly al dente noodles are folded with a misolike protein substitute called hozon, made of chickpeas), and the Caesar-like romaine salad folded with walnuts and bagna cauda. I might also return for a spoonful or two of the chicken and dumplings, a smooth, wintry mash of flat noodles, bits of pulled chicken, and smoked shiitake mushrooms, which manages to taste both comfortingly down-home and vaguely exotic at the same time.
Nishi isn’t another populist noodle-and-dumpling bar, however; it’s being pitched (and priced) as a mid-range, semi-posh restaurant, and although many of the next-wave experiments feel admirably ahead of their time compared with the competition in 2016 New York, the pickings, at this early date, also feel a little thin. Yes, you can sip evocatively named cocktails with your dinner (the Japanese-whiskey-based Mountainside is a nice one), along with a spare, intelligent selection of wines. But there are usually only two entrées on the menu (the delicate, properly fishy mackerel has its locavore charms, but the barnyard protein — usually pork, sometimes a delicious boneless leg of lamb — is the one to get) and just two prefabricated desserts. My personal favorite is the dense, pleasingly green pistachio Bundt cake, but the one slice (it’s served with a sweet spoonful of ricotta) went quickly at our table, so you may want to order more than one.
232 Eighth Ave., nr. 22nd St.; 646-518-1919; nishi.momofuku.com
Open: For dinner, Tuesday to Sunday.
Prices: $10 to $38.
Ideal Meal: Romaine and walnut bagna cauda, beef crudo, ceci e pepe or chitarra, roast lamb or pork, pistachio Bundt cake.
Note: Reservations are available via the Momofuku online system but, in my experience, nearly impossible to get. You’ll have better luck joining the rabble of walk-ins, beginning early, around 5:30 p.m., or later, around 9.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the best of the ingenious, Changian recipes. Minus a star for the unevenness and lack of variety.
*This article appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.