David Chang’s new complex on University Avenue—three restaurants and a bar—puts a Toronto spin on a New York phenomenon
190 University Ave., momofuku.com
In the foodie era, standing in line for a table is a rite of passage. We wait for caviar-topped tacos one week, bacon doughnuts the next, and the longer the wait, goes our logic, the more rewarding the eats. At places like Grand Electric and Guu, the 20-somethings pose as if they’re about to enter a nightclub. This past September, a three-storey temple called Momofuku opened next door to the new Shangri-La Hotel, on University Avenue. The Momofuku lineup is something altogether different, in both its composition and its devotion: no other Toronto restaurant appeals to the same collision of suited bankers, hipsters in their beards and plaids, extended Asian families and, one night, a smirking Ken Finkleman. As the line inches closer, people take out their iPhones and snap pictures of the restaurant’s neon peach logo above the door.
They belong to the cult of David Chang. The New York chef opened his original Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village in 2004. His eureka idea was to apply French techniques he learned at vaunted Manhattan restaurants such as Café Boulud and Craft to the Asian dishes he grew up eating, and to serve his food at communal tables to an indie rock soundtrack. Variations on his two signature pork dishes—ramen and steamed buns—have appeared on many Toronto menus.
Chang now oversees three additional Momofuku restaurants in New York, each more fancy and impossible to get into than the last; a chain of dessert shops called Milk Bar, which have had a similarly epoch-defining impact on pastry chefs, who now bake with Cornflake-infused milk and crushed pretzels; and a warehouse “culinary lab” where his team of cooks tests new recipes. He also edits a quarterly called Lucky Peach (a translation of the Japanese momofuku), which is filled with geeky paeans to kimchee, labour-intensive recipes for banana cream pie, and ponderous, rambling Chang soliloquies about how the crap taught at culinary schools is contributing to the downfall of fine dining (it’s a magazine targeted at like-minded restaurant industry workers—which is precisely what makes it so appealing to the commoners who buy it).
He has so far resisted expanding his empire outside New York, aside from a small restaurant in Sydney, Australia, so Toronto’s Chang-ophiles experienced a collective foodie orgasm when they found out our city would get its own Noodle Bar as well as three more Momofuku establishments: a cocktail lounge called Nikai, a tasting menu restaurant called Shōtō, and Daishō, which serves an à la carte menu as well as order-ahead feasts for groups of four or more. Together, they take up 6,600 square feet—the largest and most extravagant restaurant complex to debut in Toronto since the great steak houses of the ’80s.
When asked why expand to Toronto and not, like other star American chefs, to Vegas, Miami or L.A., Chang has offered flattering nothings about the city’s vibrancy and culinary sophistication. He could also say that Toronto, in proportion to its population, is underserved by restaurants of the Momofuku calibre. And that, despite the city’s large Asian population, our Chinese, Korean and Japanese restaurants haven’t evolved much since 1990. He likely keeps track of how many Torontonians, myself included, have made the pilgrimage to his New York spots or bought his two cookbooks (both as labour-intensive as Lucky Peach). In other words, he knows this city is lusting for his buns.
The risks of transplanting a brand tied to a particular city and sensibility are many, and anyone who has dined at the East Village Noodle Bar will recognize the differences. The Toronto outpost has nearly three times the capacity of the original Noodle Bar, and an institutional vibe: it’s a well-greased machine that gets you in and out in less than an hour. It’s the least expensive of the three restaurants: a heaping bowl of the classic pork ramen, the rich broth thickened by a slow-poached egg, costs $15, and the famous buns (the steamed dough pillowy and sweet, the pork slicked with hoisin, thin slices of quick-pickled cuke for crunch) are only $10. There are hometown touches, too, like a drinks list that includes Izumi unpasteurized sake made in the Distillery District and Steam Whistle tallboys.
Chang hired some of Toronto’s best restaurant talent, especially for Shōtō and Daishō. Joël Centeno, previously the maître d’ at Auberge du Pommier, greets diners at the main door with a preppy upturned collar and a “bonjour.” (It’s part of the mysteriously perfect alchemy of Momofuku that the servers are tattooed Feist look-alikes, while the guy at the door has the air of a French aristocrat.) Daishō’s floor manager, Matt Pauls, is an Oliver and Bonacini expat, and the executive sous-chef is Matt Blondin, who was the force behind an often-brilliant tasting menu at Acadia.
Noodle Bar, on the first floor, seats 70. In the first few weeks, it served about 700 people per day. Drake was spotted slurping a bowl of noodles.
Nikai, the lounge on the second floor, can seat up to 50 tipplers for cheekily named cocktails, like Krak and Cokes (Kraken rum and Mexican Coke).
Daishō, on the third floor, seats 80 for family-style platters. The screen of white oak slats above diners hides the exhaust vents from the Shangri-La’s adjoining pool area.
Shōtō, tucked behind Daishō, on the third floor, is the fanciest of the three restaurants. It seats 22 people and serves a 10-course tasting menu that takes about two hours.
Daishō is upstairs from the Noodle Bar, in an all-glass box that seems to float over University Avenue. The restaurant’s DNA comes from New York’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar, where the menu offers family-style platters of meat for four or more. Some Toronto restaurants, such as Enoteca Sociale and Bestellen, have tried large-format meals with limited success. At Daishō, diners call two days ahead of time to order fried chicken or seven-bone short ribs for six, or bo ssäm, a slow-cooked pork shoulder that diners pull apart and wrap in bibb lettuce with Korean barbecue sauce, for 10. Convincing 10 Torontonians, so accustomed to delegating big decisions to royal commissions, to agree on an order two days ahead may be an obstacle for Daishō. The night I went, many of the larger tables were empty, while every white oak four-top
My companion and I ordered from an à la carte menu that our server chirpily explained was divided between vegetables, grains, proteins and, perplexingly, apples. Some dishes, like an addictive combination of caramelized brussels sprouts and seasoned puffed rice, are Ssäm Bar staples, and others riffed on seasonal Ontario ingredients, hence the apple section. There were even apples in non-apple territory, including a luscious spiral of apple and pork sausage with a dollop of Kozlik’s grainy mustard. Dishes appeared at the table in quick succession, just like in a Chinese restaurant, which prompted a race to finish the gnocchi-like rice cakes and the ruby hunk of hanger steak before they cooled. The meal’s one flop was a massive bowl of shrimp-studded grits, an idea left over from Blondin’s Acadia days, which, alongside dishes dressed in soy and XO sauce, made as much sense as Rob Ford in The Nutcracker.
Our table had a view of University Avenue’s twin ribbons of traffic. The opera house’s lobby glowed across the street, and the new towers of the core, even the Trump, twinkled seductively. Daishō is a glamorous room, though it’s outclassed by Shōtō, the third Chang restaurant, which occupies the other side of the same floor, hidden like a private club behind a wall of wine fridges. The chefs at Shōtō are constantly reinventing the 10-course tasting menu. It’s pricey at $150 a person, plus another $80 for drink pairings. The restaurant accommodates 22 people at a time, who sit on black leather stools at a U-shaped black granite counter surrounding an open kitchen. The chefs, led by a pair imported from Chang’s Ko (the tasting menu–only New York counterpart to Shōtō), present each completed dish with a matter-of-fact explanation of the mostly obscure ingredients (dashi, lovage, gula jawa and the like). Where the chefs in Toronto restaurants like Parts and Labour are macho, offal-eating lumberjacks, Shōtō are as nerdy as the cast of The Big Bang Theory. They cook in a calm and methodical fashion, as if they are lab techs, consulting one another in hushed tones. At one point, when Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” came on, some of the cooks bounced as they chopped.
Shōtō is possibly Toronto’s most decadent restaurant. The point of a tasting menu is to be spoiled, and on our night we ate four amuses (including a remarkably complex purée of cauliflower and cheese sprinkled with kombu and crumbled croutons), followed by small plates that, one after the other, raised the richness bar: fresh, buttery spaghetti tossed with lumpfish roe and a handful of deep-fried sardines; tandoori-spiced lobster tail in a puddle of pepper-zinged puréed lemon; puffed barley and a foam of shiitake mushrooms; and, the high point, a mahogany-hued Szechuan veal cheek paired with a ballsy Norm Hardie pinot noir that proved, once and for all, that Prince Edward County’s vintners aren’t completely deluded. A dessert of intensely banana-y ice cream was accompanied by a wodge of cashew butter that surpassed foie gras both in calorie count and in all-out luxuriousness. Nearly every dish was to be eaten with tiny spoons, the better to contemplate and savour.
Tiny spoons were also used by one cook to make dozens of quenelles of this or that for various dishes. She prepped the banana ice cream for our dessert in front of us, her hands moving back and forth as she rotated the spoons again and again until she achieved the perfect oval. The procedure was dizzying to watch, especially after 10 drinks.
Chang has said the Momofuku trademark is an obsession with an ephemeral perfection—the craft and hard work that go into creating something delicious and beautiful that’s destined to disappear. He hasn’t revealed the cost of his new restaurants, but it’s surely in the millions. He intends for his Toronto Momofuku to last.