Photos: Robyn Lee
Momofuku's Tien Ho may be the best chef in New York that you've never heard of. That's going to change when Má Pêche, the company's first foray into Midtown, opens in 2010 in the former Town space in the basement of the Chambers Hotel. Chomping at the bit, waiting for the dining room renovations to be completed, Ho—a former sous chef at Cafe Boulud—and his crew started serving lunch in a sort of makeshift restaurant in the mezzanine lounge of the hotel last Thursday.
The sudden opening was the food equivalent of Springsteen playing a last-minute gig at a small club. In other words, it became a culinary cultural happening disguised as hotel room service. Momofuku Midtown room service cooked by a great chef. Now that's a concept serious eaters could get behind.
Ho on the challenge he took on: "It was really tough trying to balance between what we love, and what we thought the hotel guests wanted. Ultimately, we cook the food that we love to eat and even more important, we carry the food products that we are proud to serve."
Being brilliant guerrilla marketers, they opened for lunch last Thursday, trumpeting a bunch of $10 "midtown lunch specials" (take a bow, Mr. Zach Brooks), an all-day menu, and a breakfast menu that's served from 7 to 11 a.m.
We went for lunch on Friday (giving Má Pêche a day to get its sea legs). We got there exactly at noon, and we still had to wait 20 minutes for a table. But the food was well worth the wait. The lunch menu was equal parts accessible room service and imaginative, deeply flavorful Momofuku-style dishes.
"For lunch we wanted to offer a nice, quick Midtown lunch," Ho told me. "Really, we just wanted to make something delicious for a good value. We hope we've achieved that goal."
Though I associate room service with club sandwiches, the Má Pêche equivalent came in two banh mi creations.
The banh mì du maison is made with three terrines, daikon, and cilantro. It's meaty, crunchy, and just fatty enough, if a bit on the small side.
The banh mì au poulet is made with a rectangular hunk of house-made chicken-lemongrass sausage. Our waiter promised some caramelized crunch from the seared sausage exterior but it never materialized.
Hue-style chicken soup is made with lemongrass, mushroom, and lots of fragrant fresh herbs. It has deep chicken flavor in every sip of its brown broth and every bite of the floating pieces of dark meat chicken.
The thick bowl of rice noodles comes topped with bits of pork sausage, greens, and crisp shallots. It's a simple, perfect, porky plate of noodles that I'd be happy eating every day.
I was beyond happy with the ungussied-up grilled cheese sandwich here, made with three cheeses: Swiss, cheddar, and American. Why is a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu? Ho's sudden realization: "Oh, shit, we need a vegetarian dish."
What makes the sandwich, he says, is the Sullivan Street bakery Pullman bread it's made with—but the gooey melted cheese that seeps through the bread's hole structure also helps a lot. Let's face it: We all love oozing melted cheese on buttered and grilled bread. Ditto for the salty, well-browned fries.
The Chambers burger, currently made with 33% Imperial Wagyu and 67% Niman Ranch beef, is a fabulous burger—extremely beefy, just fatty enough, plenty of salt, a great caramelized crust, and a tender interior that is not too mushy. Will it stay this way? There's no way to know, because, according to Ho, they are constantly tweaking it. Don't tweak it too much, Tien. It tastes pretty swell just the way it is.
Brunch on Sunday was empty. Apparently the Momofuku crowd doesn't go to Midtown for Sunday breakfast or brunch. (They're probably still sleeping.) This made for the most restful, peaceful Momofuku meal ever.
Klotz's mixed granola is made by Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi, and it's just about as good as granola gets: crunchy but not burned, not too sweet, and loaded with banana chips and dried fruit. I think the lemon and orange zest also helps a lot.
Three Greenmarket-sourced Knoll Crest eggs were perfectly cooked (I ordered them scrambled soft), and they came with house-made pork-lemongrass sausage that didn't look like much when it arrived at our table, but man, was it delicious. The lemongrass will make you forget all the mediocre sage-flavored breakfast sausages you've eaten.
"We first made this sausage in the early days of Ssam Bar," Ho told me. "Then it was wrapped in a lettuce cup and came with a side of herbs and fish sauce. We just thought it would be great with eggs in the morning."
Good call. It does. Unfortunately the uninspired home fries that also accompany the eggs add only unnecessary carbs to your breakfast. Better to eat a slice of the excellent Sullivan Street bakery Pullman or multigrain toast instead.
The obligatory room service steak and eggs plate is made with properly cooked Creekstone hanger steak and eggs. I've never had an inspired plate of steak and eggs, and this one certainly falls into the uninspired category.
Four baked-to-order chocolate chip cookies are crunchy at the edges, soft and chewy on the inside, and they come piping hot to the table accompanied by four glasses of really cold milk. What more needs to be said? Nuthin.'
Ho is a supremely talented chef, so it's not surprising he can master a reasonably creative room service menu. But he's obviously got so much horsepower under the oven hood I can't wait until Má Pêche, the restaurant, is open. Until it does, Ho's mezzanine food will have to suffice. It does—with flavor and technique and reverence for great ingredients to spare.
Mezzanine at the Chambers Hotel, 15 West 56th Street, New York NY 10019
Service: Friendly and surprisingly efficient for what may be a temporary operation
Setting: Lounge-like, a combination of small wooden tables and coffee tables made of felt
Compare It To: The Breslin, Standard Grill, other Momofuku restaurants
Must-Haves: Grilled cheese, cheeseburger, granola, chocolate chip cookies