Looking to shake things up at Momofuku CCDC last fall, David Chang gave incoming chef Tae Strain his full support — the gist of which was, “No sacred cows,” as Chang recalls telling Strain, the former chef de cuisine of the innovative Progress in San Francisco.
Strain, who grew up in Howard County and returned to the Mid-Atlantic as much to work for one of his idols as to be closer to his family, took the empire-builder at his word and quickly removed ramen and buns from the menu.
Social media reacted as if Starbucks were dropping coffee.
Trust me: Bing will help you move on.
Bing is Chinese flatbread, crisped on the grill, and among Strain’s significant contributions to the Asian restaurant in CityCenterDC (CCDC) whose opening three years ago was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm generally lavished on rock stars and Broadway legends. The bread, made with whole wheat and durum and served in warm disks, makes up an entire category, with seven possible embellishments. I have yet to meet a flavor I wouldn’t be happy to taste again, but locavores might take a shine to the crumb-carpeted oyster gratin enriched with Parmesan, which Strain created as a shout-out to his new audience and favors for its “ooey, gooey crab dip appeal.” A meat eater might gravitate to bing offered with ruddy folds of pleasantly funky Lady Edison country ham, from pasture-raised pigs in North Carolina, served with a ramekin of red-eye mayonnaise, a sop flavored with coffee. Pimento-cheese heads can thrill to a version spiked with fermented chile and smoked cheddar, and garnished with an ever-changing pickle.
Whatever your fancy, bing is da bomb.
There’s also big satisfaction in little packages. “I’m obsessed with dumplings,” says Strain, who is 35 and Korean by heritage. You’ll be obsessed, too, after sampling shrimp-and-pork dumplings — ground Texas surf and Kansas turf ignited with lemon grass — or the heartier orbs of dry-aged beef and ground lamb.
A raft of toast draped with clam ragout is another successful small plate that pays homage to Strain’s mother’s home port of Providence, a “shellfish town” where he spent summers as a youth. But even routine-sounding dishes have a way of impressing diners. Spicy cucumbers are as prevalent as lapel pins on congressmen, but nowhere else do I find myself asking for leftovers to be boxed up, so delectable is the combination of cured cucumber chunks tossed with scallion vinaigrette, crushed Marcona almonds and a dash of togarashi, the Japanese spice blend that perks up anything it touches.
Momofuku’s bar offers some choice cocktails, my current pick of which goes by the name Rage Against the Dying of the Light. Gin, chartreuse, lemon and maraschino Luxardo, redolent of bitter almonds, is swell to the last drop.
The more the merrier at Momofuku. Go with a group, in other words, and feast on one of Strain’s family-style meals. Whole-roasted chicken is a fiery orange-gold, so big and beautiful it ought to be in pictures. I relish everything about the entree, which gets massaged with spiced yogurt, then showered with pickled chiles, a garden of herbs and olive brine before diners are able to pounce. (Strain bothers to separately twice-fry the wings, for extra crunch.) A rival for diners’ attention is the accompanying side dish of garlicky basmati rice, rich with chicken fat and brown butter but shocked with the juice of charred lemons. Fried eggs on top make a sunny, runny garnish. “Anything can and will change,” Strain says of his ever-evolving repertoire. If he makes an exception, I hope it’s for the chicken.
Come to think of it, the steak ssam is ripe for fame, too. Starring a fan of blushing slices of chuck beef sauced with rendered beef fat and bedded on mushroom rice, the group fun is $88, plenty for four hungry carnivores. A slew of condiments — from a bright sauce of diced scallions and ginger to a red chile paste that forms sweat on your brow — lets you create personalized steak wraps thanks to a nearby plate of ruffled lettuce. Onion lovers, prepare to be dazzled. Lacy white onion rings help frame the steak, whose rice base is bolstered with sharp, sweet, smoky onions. Bliss.
My lesser memories from Momofuku 1.0 typically involved dessert: Soft-serve ice cream designed to taste like cereal milk and sugary “crack pie” that should have come with a warning from the American Dental Association. Sold through the related and adjoining storefront Milk Bar, those and other confections yielded lines of youthful Instagrammers but pans from me.
To order dessert now is to appreciate Strain’s proficiency with the sweet side of cooking. In his hands, sticky toffee pudding is light rather than heavy, thanks to shredded carrots in the batter and lemon in a dollop of caramel whipped cream. And spring is sprung with poached rhubarb
and crushed pistachios dressing up an olive oil cake circled with tufts of torched marshmallow shot through with pink peppercorns. (Burnt is the new black, if you haven’t noticed.)
The changed kitchen leadership has clearly rubbed off on the staff. Everyone from the host to the server to whoever refills your glass or clears your plates seems to be on a mission to make you feel you made the right choice for lunch, brunch or dinner. Momofuku remains a clamorous big box — soaring windows, bare white oak tables and sealed concrete floors aren’t exactly noise sponges — but I very much admire the spare design complemented by cooks in an open kitchen and flashes of color that link to the restaurant. (Momofuku translates from Japanese to “lucky peach,” hence the outsize yellow fruit brightening a front wall.)
Long story short, Chang got it right with his new hire: What a difference a Tae makes.
1090 I St. NW.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Small plates $5 to $18, large plates and family-style platters $24 to $88.
Sound check: 81 decibels / Extremely loud.