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Momofuku Fever: we review David Chang’s new four-in-one mega-restaurant

David Chang’s new complex on University Avenue—three ­restaurants and a bar—puts a Toronto spin on a New York phenomenon

Momofuku Fever: we review David Chang’s new four-in-one mega-restaurant
Noodle Bar star ½
Daishō star
Shōtō star
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.

  • gto

    Went to Daisho – very disappointing and not what I expected after having gone to Chang’s restaurants in New York. A la carte menu dishes do not pair well together and the sauces/seasoning drown out what you are supposed to be eating. Heard better things about Shito.
    Pretty empty the night we went and yet they make it a pain in the ass to get a reservation.

  • Pickles

    It doesn’t seem like you actually reviewed the Noodle Bar, just the other two.

    I had the ramen a couple days ago and it was excellent. I’d like to try everything else and really wish this reviewer had.

  • N_TO

    I had the ramen a few weeks ago and was not impressed. My meal was essentially ramen noodles covered with Sriracha for $12.

    If I ever have a ramen fix, will probably look to Mr. Noodles instead of Momofoku.

  • #shocked

    #shocked – TL assigning resto star ratings commensurate with menu prices? Why even bother tasting the food, it’s all in the $

  • Toronto Girl

    Went to Noodle Bar. Service was slow and horrendous. The floor manager eyed customers like we weren’t good enough to be there. Not worth your wait or money. There are so many other deserving places in Toronto to enjoy a nice meal.

  • BD

    I went to Daisho too and it wasnt as great as I expected either. However, I am looking forward to try Shoto! Hopefully that matches my expectations considering its a 4 start.

  • Mulva

    Tried all three places. The Noodle Bar wasn’t very good at all. The noodles came in a lukewarm broth that was overpowered by the miso paste in it. Daisho was ehhh. We share the giant pork shoulder, and the taste buds got tired of the same thing after a while. Shoto was alright. Most of the dishes were interesting (except the high gluten bun – that was horrible), but nothing was memorable or outstanding.

  • Bob

    I am not sure if Chang style, is, my favourite in the world of great cookery. Been to his restaurants in N.Y.C., now, Toronto… What is all the hype about? These restaurants are O.K., yes, but, that is all about as much as I can say about it. O.K. Maybe people in Toronto have no good ethnic sense of taste, but, very good Chinese, Vietnamese, and other solid ‘ese’ restaurants are located in your Chinatown. I prefer these restaurants, any day, to Chang’s multi-level showroom. Actually, I think the Chang style of cuisine, is like Gangnam style: flavour of the moment, and it is now time to move on. Much, much better ethnic cuisine to be found elsewhere in Toronto, and the world.

  • Bob

    I forgot to mention, a lot of the ingredients are not made on site, i.e., the buns for pork belly buns, the rice cakes, et cetera, it is all made off-site. Sounds like McDonald’s or chain style cookery to me…

  • missymiss

    have been to the noodle bar 3 times now, just to try out different dishes. the ramen is ok, but i’ve had equally good ramen on dundas for less money. the cold noodles were gross. the pork buns were ok but pricey for two steamed buns with a slab of pork belly. i don’t think i’ll be back for a fourth time. like designer clothes, you’re really paying extra for the name here.

  • MF

    Popped into the noodle bar for a quick early dinner before the Metric show on saturday evening. No wait. Service was fast and friendly. Food was good. Interesting space. But for those who have expectations that it will be a life changing culinary experience will be disappointed. I actually think I enjoyed 416 Snack Bar more but again maybe that has something to do with expectations.

  • WC

    Was at the Noodle Bar for a date night Wednesday. There was a wait, but not too bad. The host was pretty nice. However, after months of anticipation and reading commentaries about the restaurant, hate to say that we were a little disappointed. The Spicy Noodle was literally nothing besides noodles topped with extreme heat chilli sauce without much taste otherwise. The bowl of signature Ramen was nice but priced at $12. The pork bun wasn’t bad relative to the noodles, but in comparison to the “real deal” the flavour is lacking. So what is the fever about?

  • Paul

    Chang’s restaurants are so incredibly overrated its disturbing.

  • Rob

    Went to Noodle Bar and the Shoto. Both overrated and Shoto was insanely expensive for what I got. I’ve had better at for less in many places.

 

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