New York, New York
I was supposed to have lunch at Alto.
But I gotta tell you, the lunch menu at Alto looked really ho-hum.
So I had lunch at má pêche instead. Besides, I wanted to see my friend Aaron, who’s a server there.
If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that David Chang and his team have perfected the art of restaurant foreplay.
First there’s a coyly positioned peek: a bar menu.
The expected mouth-foaming begins.
Then there’s a strip tease: the dining room is unveiled – this one, the denuded dungeon formerly known as Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town in the Chambers Hotel. And the lunch menu drops.
The cat calls begins, steady but constant – a touch of hesitation.
Midtown? Really? It’s on everyone’s mind.
And, after a few weeks of posturing and tweaking, the finale: the dinner program is announced, a full-frontal invitation to the critics. The climax? Chang’s latest sequel to momo meatfest: “beef seven ways.” ($85/person, includes tongue, shank, oxtail, ribeye, and even a supplement Époisses cheese course, if you so desire, reported by Eater.).
And that, my friends, is how David Chang delivered his newest peach.
Yes, momoverse is atwitter once again. All is as it should be.
Of course, my painfully cheeky analogy is the more imaginative and sexy way to interpret the life and times of má pêche.
The more mundane, and probably more realistic story is that Chang, like any good restaurateur, unveiled má pêche in calculated stages, giving his kitchen and staff ample time to acclimatize, develop, and perfect before swinging the doors wide open for the heavyweights. Smart.
But this is mere speculation on my part. You will find far more accurate and informed sources than me on the subject. Go to them before you believe what I tell you.
Instead, I’ll turn to what I do best: eating.
I arrived on the scene somewhere towards the end of the strip tease. At that time, má pêche was lunch-only, with the dinner menu planned to release less than a week hence (and it did).
Mr. RBI, Ms. Toidy-Toid & Toid (a.k.a. Wizard of Roz), and I found a table in Aaron’s section without a problem around half-past noon on a Friday. By the time we ordered, all of the tables were filled. Suits and ties everywhere.
The kitchen was in the weeds early on. Cory Lane, the general manager, actually told us that. He apologized for it too. And he did the same with tables around us. So did Aaron. I don’t know why, but I found that pretty terrific even though it’s a common courtesy that should be expected. I guess it’s because it seemed like an unnecessary admittance given that our food came out quickly, and in appropriately timed waves.
First, an avalanche of blanched asparagus on a bed of “gribiche” – basically a chunky egg vinaigrette flecked with crab meat (“mang tây gribiche;” $18). It sounds like something out of middle France. It tasted more like something out of the Middle Kingdom, or Vietnam, the new situs of Chang’s peachy inspiration. Were those Chinese garlic chives? A dash of fish sauce? Crunchy little potato chips were tucked here in there. It was very good.
It sounds wrong to describe beef tartare as “refreshing.” But the one at má pêche is exactly that (“bò tartare“). The tender, chopped meat is bound with silky egg yolk and laced with a splash of fresh lime and mint. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t. And yet it does. Served with prawn crackers (yes, those tongue-gripping, crispy, styrofoam-like wonders), it’s the most creative Asian nacho dish you’ll ever have. (And how does Tien Ho – ex-ssäm bar chef, now chef of má pêche – keep the meat from “cooking” from the acid? Soy sauce magic?)
The “ôc sên sauvage,” wild Burgundy snails and pork sausage, was the least interesting of the dishes we tried (normally $12, ours arrived gratis). The snails were tender, the sausage spicy and flavorful, and the tarragon sauce was amazing; crusty bread on the side to sop. But it felt out of place. This *was* from middle France. And not that middle France is bad, or even boring, but it’s not momoverse food.
The “côtelletes de porc,” however, may have offered the best bite of the day ($12). Sticky and sweet, the lemongrass caramel – more syrup than glaze – walked a fine line between too sweet and just sweet enough. The meat pulled cleanly off the rib bones. *Finger-licking*
Or, despite the fact that it might have been served a touch too cool for my taste, was the best bite from the “cá loup de mer nướng,” two grilled fillets of branzino crosshatched with smoky char ($27)? A pool of creamy coconut sauce, wrinkly matchsticks of grilled long beans, and a hillock of croutons and Marcona almonds: like the beef tartare, it doesn’t sound like it should work. But it did, wonderfully and effortlessly. The char, the coconut, a delicious marriage of bitter and sweet.
We finished off (or, rather, I finished off) with a bowl of “chou-fleur chiên,” those fried cauliflower florets that originated at momofuku ssäm bar ($12). The dish at má pêche is nearly identical to the one at ssäm bar too, packing all the same fish saucy punch, with perhaps the addition of curry (I haven’t seen it with curry at ssäm bar, but I also haven’t had the ssäm bar version for years).
In fact, all of the food we had at má pêche seems like it could have come out of the ssäm bar kitchen. And I get the feeling that momofans had expected something different, something new. Chang 3.0.
And perhaps Chang/Ho will answer their wishes. má pêche will, no doubt, evolve, just as ssäm bar and noodle bar have.
Could the service have been better? I don’t know, you tell me. My friend was serving us. I can’t answer that question fairly.
But I will say that Mr. Lane seemed less frazzled and more chipper than when I last saw him managing the frazzlerock that is momofuku ssäm bar. I love that Cory and his crew wear trainers (I use “trainers” as opposed to the word “sneakers,” which might be confused with canvas Converse shoes.).
I know you don’t visit this blog for my opinion on interior design. But I’ll share my thoughts anyway. What some have called a travesty (I have no idea how allegedly stunning Town was), I call typical Chang with a splash of modern airport terminal.
I mean, má pêche isn’t the most fetching restaurant I’ve ever seen. But it does feel and look like it belongs in momoverse. Or maybe, momoverse space odyssey 2020?
If I overheard the conversation at the next table correctly (not an easy task given that the music in momoverse habitually plays at a decibel point disproportionately high and utterly inappropriate for the amount of chatter), the designers are not quite finished with their transformation of the space (which led me to ask: short of screen-printing a giant Warhol-like mug of David Chang, or a steamed bun, say, on the tarp-lined walls, what else could they possibly do?)
If there was a dessert menu at má pêche, I wasn’t aware of it. I think that’s what the milk bar is for (yes, Tosiverse expands to Midtown too). Conveniently located at the restaurant’s entrance at street level, you have to walk past it on the way in and out of the dining room. Of course, I couldn’t help but stop.
I took a tug of “Pistachio Salted Caramel” soft serve ($4.15) and took three momo cookies to go ($1.85 each/3 for $5).
The Dixie cup-sized soft serve was so rich and thick that it could have fed ten. It had a wonderfully rich pistachio flavor, but it was like eating frozen frosting. I took a couple of bites and threw the rest away.
I’ll get to the cookies in a subsequent post.
má pêche, a runaway hit? That remains to be seen. The returns from His Peachness’s “beef seven ways” are just now trickling in.
15 west 56th Street
New York, New York 10019
(Between 5th and 6th Avenues)