Chang’s for the memories: Momofuku Seiobo, Sydney

URBAN LEGEND GOES THAT 90 years ago, the Grecian-style, 2000-seat Star amphitheatre was built in Balmoral to await Christ’s Second Coming through Sydney Heads.

Close, but no Rapture.

Steamed pork bun with hoisin and cucumber

A mystical offshoot of the Theosophical Society was responsible, but alas their Indian-born messiah, Krishnamurti, rejected his anointment and followers. Eventually, Sydney’s one true religion, real estate, converted the site into a block of flats.

This parable comes to mind at Momofuku Seiobo because ever since The Star announced a Sydney branch of David Chang’s cult New York restaurants, culinary trainspotters have shouted hallelujah with incontinent excitement.

But he’s not the messiah, nor is he the naughty boy so often portrayed publicly. Chang is a thoughtful, clever chef who’s melded his Korean-American heritage with Australian produce and Japanese panache to great success. While Momofuku Seiobo borrows from its American cousins, it also has an Australian twang, offering a new direction for dining. 

Now the initial hoopla has died down and he’s returned to New York, there’s a strong team in place to fulfil his vision. Head chef Ben Greeno is a Momofuku group veteran who also did a stint at Noma in Copenhagen. He is a brilliant interpreter of Chang’s vision and jocularity. Sommelier Richard Hargeave was previously pouring at Bilson’s. He matches while with bravura equalled only by the kitchen.

But there are shortcomings, from the infernal online bookings system, which demands registration, then luck and perseverance to secure a reservation 10 days in advance (competition for the 40 seats showed no sign of slowing, six months on), to the dark, ascetic room – I could be in a shopping centre, with the neon glare of Adriano Zumbo’s store opposite shining through the curtains, except a large poster of AC/DC’s Angus Young adds teenage boy’s bedroom chic – and passing the kitchen hand and dirty dishes to reach a single unisex loo. 

Egg with toasted rice, brown butter

The music is baby boomer hip – Velvet Underground, Joy Division, yet as eclectic as Bobby Hicks – and loud enough to curtail conversation, although The Gambler by Kenny Rogers is a nicely wry touch when you’re dining at a casino.

Most diners score stools at the kitchen counter to watch the action. If it’s about the food and you love a show, that’s where you want to be. The few tables are mostly for groups of four, but to all intents and purposes, you’re in dining Siberia, and there’s a small bar space by the front door. Following the style popularised by L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (who nicked the idea from the Japanese), chefs present and explain the dishes. It’s a restaurant that asserts its primacy over diners, suiting those who want to be absorbed in the meal, rather than friends who consider eating supplementary to gathering for a goss.

Fifteen courses begin with F1 acceleration. First up, four curious snacks: smoked potato, mochi (Japanese glutinous rice cake balls), shiitake chips and nori. Texture triumphs over flavour. Next is Chang’s legendary show tune: steamed bun with pork belly, cucumber and hoisin, sweet and soft as a newborn baby’s bum. Yes, it’s worth the veneration.

The service, as expected, is young and funky. They swoop, set and sort with precision. Matching wines are $95. It’s approximately 5.5 standard drinks, we’re told; a nice way to sum it up, that’s as eclectic as everything else here. One minute it’s a Loire muscadet, the next, a red rice sake from Kyoto, then to Italy, France, a Malborough pinot blanc by Pyramid Valley, then McLaren Vale shiraz by Fruits of the Vine. The 50-plus-bin list is concise yet intriguing, but doesn’t come cheaply, opening at $55 and quickly accelerating past the $100 mark. 

Lamb neck with onions and mustard seeds

The parade rolls on: raw sea mullet with nectarine and Sichuan pepper. It’s bold to serve a fish many consider bait and be reminded of how bloody good it really is. From 11 initial savoury courses, five are seafood. There’s a strong Japanese influence and Chang’s fascination with fermented foods makes cameos too, as well as his subversive dude side: the gutsy spanner crab with Yorkshire pud and “Old Bay” is a trash talk wink to an American spice mix used to season shellfish.

An egg custard mimics tofu with toasted rice and brown butter in a play on chawanmushi; pea agnolotti with parmesan and ham is an unexpectedly Italian moment that makes you do a double-take before lamb neck with mustard seeds and onion feels more Sunday roast.

Presentation is immaculately contemporary and sculptural. It’s nuanced, elegant fare with a strong acid balance and blessedly short of the sweetness I’d expected.

The shift towards dessert is signalled by grated Bruny Island C2 cheese with a sweet pollen “honeycomb” before peach and pistachio with shards of rose-flavoured meringue over the top. Both are quite brilliant, the cheese nutty, the second dish a kind of Middle Eastern pavlova. 

Grated Bruny Island C2 cheese with honey liquorice and bee pollen

Miso ice cream with cherries and black sesame is an exquisite climax before a “petit four” that in modern parlance is better described as the WTF? A shared plate of caramelised pork shoulder to pick at with your fingers is sweet and lovely, but aside from its shock value, what’s the point?

Well, I recently heard a food historian argue that a meal should end like a classical music concert, with stirring finish – he argues dessert aint no coda – and admittedly, the pork is more bang than whimper. It’s inspired by what the kitchen wants to chow down on after service, but then they haven’t just experienced the four movements of Chang’s culinary symphony. As thrilling as such derring-do is, I don’t want to leave with splinters of meat stuff in my teeth as the lingering melody. 

More than $500 later – dinner is $175pp, lunch a comparative bargain at $100 – you realise this is serious restaurant territory, which leads me to compare Momofuku Seiobo with options such as Quay, Tetsuya’s, Marque and est.

Peach, rose, pistachio

If you value tablecloths, peace and quiet and a little fuss over the thrills and squeals from this rollercoaster of a meal, then approach with caution.

Everyone should try Momofuku Seiobo once. Don’t die wondering. Some will become converts, happy clapping about Momofuku in a growing food sect. That’s no bad thing. David Chang has a touch of Steve Jobs in the way he thinks about food. He’s an innovator who enjoys being provocative and an iconoclast.

But if don’t believe, it won’t be the end of the world either. 

 

SCORE 8.5/10

Where The Star, 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont. Booking online only at momofuku.com

When Lunch Fri-Sat; Dinner Mon-Sat

Food Contemporary

In a mouthful Korean-American David Chang shows why he’s the poster boy of New York dining with an Australian outpost that’s both confronting and exciting. It’s not everyone’s cup of green tea, but putting aside the Kool Aid hype, you won’t be disappointed. 

 * A version of this review first appeared in The Daily Telegraph’s Taste.com.au section, March 2012.

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