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.