You never quite know where you are with Dave Chang’s Momofuku Inc. One day the pork addicts are practically blacklisting vegetarians, the next day they’re whipping up seven-course meatless feasts at the Beard House. Still, who could have predicted a move to midtown that didn’t involve an Asian-burrito cart? So, naturally, the Momo project at the Chambers Hotel is one of the most hotly anticipated restaurant openings in this week’s Fall Preview, but it won’t happen for at least a couple more months. To tide you over, we’ll leave you with some remarks from executive-chef-partner Tien Ho, the man who’ll be running the show, along with Ko sous-chef Sam Gelman, and support in the pastry and beverage departments from Momofuku mainstays Christina Tosi and Cory Lane. The name has yet to be officially announced and the French-Vietnamese bistro menu is still a work in progress, but, over stuffed cabbage and baklava at Molyvos, Mr. Ho revealed a few choice tidbits and answered some pressing questions: Why midtown? Will there be pork buns? Last but not least, he gave us a sneak peek at Momofuku’s inaugural burger.
How did this whole thing come about?
Personally, this has been in the works for years. I’ve had this idea to do a French-Vietnamese bistro since way before Momofuku, while I was working at Café Boulud. About a year ago, Dave and I started looking for a space in the West Village. But the thing about the West Village is that everyone wanted like $20,000 a month for spaces that were the size of Ssäm Bar. And then the owners of the Chambers Hotel approached Dave with a much better deal.
You’d worked before at Café Boulud and Café Gray. How do you feel about going back uptown?
When Dave told me about the idea, my initial reaction was like, “No way, man, you gotta be kidding me.” I was like, “Fuck you, dude. I’m not going back to midtown.” I mean, the mentality is so different. I think we could get away with a lot more downtown than anywhere else.
What changed your mind?
Well, Dave was already sold on it. He’d seen it. He said, “Tien, I know exactly what you’re going to say, which is no, but just hear me out,” and I said no. Then he said, “Okay, I’m gonna take you there to look at it, and you’re going to change your mind.” And he was right. I was like, “Holy shit!” The restaurant was beautiful. I hadn’t been there in a long time. Not my style, per se, a little too sparkly and chichi, but structurally, a beautiful space. And then I saw the kitchen. Brilliantly designed, it’s a friggin’ tank. But what changed my mind wasn’t only the space but all the people involved: the owners, the GM, the staff. They were so nice and accommodating. They want us to be there.
Will the space be overhauled?
The design’s going to be very simple. We’re talking about stripping it down and patching it up very quickly. Hell, Locanda Verde, they did it in fourteen days. There’s nothing structural. Although this is a project that requires a bit of a grown-up perspective; that’s where [designer] Thomas Schlesser comes in.
What kind of concessions to midtown tastes are you making? Will there be tablecloths?
Oh, God, no! No tablecloths, no tuxedos, no formality. It will still be recognizably Momofuku. It’s the Momofuku tree, and this restaurant is just a branch. How involved do we want to pronounce the Momofukuness of it? That’s still up in the air.
What about counter dining?
Unfortunately, the kitchen is in the back and it’s closed, so for the first time in Momofuku history, it’s not going to be possible.
Will you take reservations?
That’s something we’re trying to figure out. Everybody tells us that we’re idiots if we don’t have a reservations system in midtown. One of the things we joke about is, ‘Oh, let’s make this a power-lunch restaurant.’ Well, I guess we could, but would anyone really want to come here with some rock and roll blaring for their power lunch? I don’t know. If we don’t have that reservations system, we might be shooting ourselves in the foot.
What will the price range be?
At dinner, entrees will be in the mid to low twenties. I definitely would like to try and do a prix fixe at lunch.
Does being in a hotel present any particular challenges?
Well, we’ll do room service from 6:30 in the morning to 1 in morning, so it’s a long day. One of the things we need to do for the room service is hamburgers, but I doubt that I’ll do a burger for the dining room. Everybody’s on this whole La Frieda craze, and we buy a lot from them at Ssäm, but I’m working with DeBragga on a burger blend for the hotel. My vision is more toward grass-fed Angus variety. As far as the burger style, I’m from Texas, so I want to keep it traditional.
What about the dining room menu? How do you describe it?
When I think of a traditional bistro, I think of very French comfort food: pâtés, terrines, a raw bar, roast fish, a grilled piece of meat. So you take all those basic elements and put a Vietnamese blanket over it. I have a mental image of a lot of traditional French bistro dishes like skate meunière, for example. The challenge is to infuse Vietnamese flavors into it, whether it be lemongrass or Thai basil, say. A perfect example of what I’m thinking of is a dish we did at Ssäm Bar: fried brussels sprouts tossed in fish sauce.
Speaking of Ssäm, will there be any specific Ssäm or Momofuku dishes here?
We’re going to try to not have any dishes we did before.
No pork buns?
Oh, there’s always a chance with pork buns. We would be so stupid not to do that here.
But no Asian burritos?
Right, no burritos.