Janne Apelgren May 08, 2012
Theatre ... chefs deliver dishes without pretentious descriptions. Photo: Quentin Jones
Damn, damn, damn. The lights have changed, so by the time I get to the other side of the intersection, pull over and hop online on my phone, it will be 10.01am at least. I'm on a mission where timing is critical. I'm too late by a minute, so I will not be dining at Australia's hottest restaurant. All the bookings at Momofuku Seiobo for 10 days later have gone in the first 59 seconds after they're available. Thank goodness I didn't book my flights from Melbourne before scoring the table.
For about six months I tried at least 10 times to get a seat at 34-year-old American chef David Chang's first restaurant outside the US. I registered with his website (compulsory, as all bookings are made online) and thought I had some inside knowledge: start trying at 10am on the dot, when bookings open for 10 days later. My first attempt failed because when I tried to log on at 9.59, I'd forgotten my password and had to go looking for it. On another attempt, a table disappeared as I pressed the button to book.
Finally, I leapt on to the website at 10 one morning and there it was: a spot for two at 7.30 just a week and a half later, on a Thursday night. I nabbed it, handed over my credit card number and phoned the travel agent.
The restaurant's confirmation came via email and warned me that if I didn't show up for my reservation, I'd be charged $175 a head anyway. There were more rules. No flash photography. No taking phone calls in the restaurant. If you're more than 15 minutes late and don't notify the restaurant, they'll give away your spot (the best seats are not at tables but at the bar in this 30-seater, pictured above). That didn't dim my sense of triumph at snagging a booking at one of the country's hardest-to-crack restaurants. I started to boast about it and began to meet other potential pilgrims - friends willing to take leave midweek, schedule ''work meetings'' in Sydney or lob with relatives just to eat at Momofuku.
The second confirmation email (followed up with a phone call) left nothing to chance. There was a map. A little exhortation - ''We look forward to seeing you'' - and an ''emergency hotline'' phone number in case I needed to cancel or was running late. And the ''frequently asked questions'' section of the website answered any other queries. There's no a la carte. You're in for the full 13 courses - expect two hours of eating. It's $175 at dinner, $100 at lunch. Go hard or stay home, it seemed to say.
Despite the long rule book, once you arrive the place is delightfully not stitched up. Entry is via the Star casino's sleek black food court, where Momofuku Seiobo's door is well screened. Bookings are paced so everyone gets a proper welcome.
Taking a high seat at the bar surrounding the open kitchen, hanging my handbag off the hook underneath it, I'm as excited as a tweenager with a fistful of Justin Bieber tickets. AC/DC's Angus Young looks down on the restaurant from a black-and-white photograph on the wall while the soundtrack leaps joyfully from Led Zeppelin to Cat Stevens, but never at a volume that hinders conversation. The crowd is mainly couples, discreetly spaced at the bar. There are trophy diners; the curious; ambitious young chefs; hip twosomes. No loud tables (in fact, very few tables, and in the shadows; you can book for no more than four). There's a buzz - Neil Perry noted recently that modern restaurants had to have buzz to survive. But there's no frenzy, no feeling it's too cool. It's sophisticated and welcoming. And soon it's apparent this food is brilliant and original with buckets of mojo.
The chefs deliver the dishes with a comfortable banter, no whispered descriptions. There are, in fact, 14 courses. To start, a glazed lollipop of glutinous rice paste, mochi; the famous pork bun with a sweet, gelatinous slab of meat and a ribbon of sweet-tart cucumber in doughy yet airily collapsible steamy bread.
There's a lush smokiness in several dishes, including the burnt eggplant, which is paired with rare marron and rhubarb. Crab is bliss, with a Yorkshire pud that's crisp crusted, souffle-like inside. The pasta is a masterpiece: agnolotti with tiny dice of serrano ham, peas and parmesan foam from the soda siphon, cold against the hot, hot pasta.
The cheese course is shredded C2 cheese with liquorice jelly cubes and a lattice of something on top that turns out to be bee pollen. Trumpeter with smoked roe makes a hero of grilled cos lettuce. Fresh pistachios, rose water meringue, poached peach, green - almost toffeed - ice-cream of pistachio is almost an homage to Escoffier's peach melba. Then, malty ice-cream comes with a smoky butter caramel. It never feels like an endurance test, as some degustations can.
But just when you think it's all over, as you're sipping a perky Piemontese moscato (one of the nine-for-$95 wine matches), a slab of pork shoulder to be eaten with the fingers arrives, and hot towels. A petit four. Ha!
As we finish, it's clear Chang has a mastery of taste that puts him in maestro territory. It's in the smoky kohlrabi with the pork neck, the sweet-and-sour turnips, and the radish and fermented black bean where wagyu beef is almost a support act.
I have to ask: Why doesn't Melbourne have this restaurant? We'd love it. Chang says it's because Sydney asked first.
We leave, elated. So elated my companion declares he's going to win back the cost of the meal on the roulette table. We lose $50 in five minutes. It's clear the $540 has been a far better investment.
David Chang devises his food with the help of Harvard microbiologists. He's a taste-maker, named by Time magazine as one of the world's most influential people. He does the steamed pork bun that inspired a legion of imitators (and, yes, it's wonderful). And the night I visit he's in the restaurant, pottering in the back half of the kitchen and occasionally emerging to give some face time to every guest in a casually methodical fashion. Would the experience be lesser without him? I think not. If Chang has a hint of mischief, the youthful and composed British head chef Ben Greeno (pictured) is James Bond to Chang's Spider-Man.
Momofuku Seiobo has a downside:one unisex loo, accessed through the kitchen. Technically it’s for the staff. I’m told diners are meant to use the common loos in the casino food court. Puh-leez. I’m paying $540 for dinner for two: build me a toilet. Carry me there in a sedan chair. The restaurant creates a certain mood, which would be spoilt by ducking out into a food court, however sleek and black it is.
Janne Apelgren is editor of The Age Good Food Guide.