The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.
You no longer have to wait in line for the opportunity to eat David Chang’s food in the celebrity chef’s expansive, concrete-and-wood storefront downtown. Whether it’s because the restaurant lemmings have scurried on to something shinier (have you noticed all the new Asian options out there?) or the initial curiosity about the New York import has been sated, I managed to stroll into Momofuku for lunch and brunch in recent months and be seated as fast as you can read this sentence. Here’s why the place deserves some love: The crisp, caramelly shiitake buns might be my favorite meat-free sandwich in town, the braised chicken with fried shallots and seaweed-flecked rice is the bomb, and if you’re looking to replace your standard brunch mimosa, let me introduce you to El Diablo Royale. (Wine, cassis and tequila make for a stimulating Sunday morning.) Then again, the ramen remains a bit of an underperformer, and the desserts, from the adjoining Milk Bar, continue to baffle me, given that their creator, Christina Tosi, is the author of one of my favorite dessert cookbooks. Seemingly rolled from raw dough and a ton of sugar, her birthday cake truffles throw cold water on any party, and a cherry-flavored cookie tastes as flat as it looks. Still, even though it’s not the hot spot it was when it came on the scene, Momofuku offers sufficient moments of pleasure for you to keep tabs on.
1090 I St. NW. 202-602-1832. ccdc.momofuku.com .
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch weekends.
Prices: Lunch buns and bowls, $12 to $18; dinner buns and mains $12 to $29; brunch buns and mains $12 to $18.
Sound check: 87 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review was originally published on Jan. 13, 2016
Momofuku CCDC review: For the shrimp buns and servers, the wait is worth it
The directors will have plenty of subjects to choose from: the contemporary American Rose’s Luxury, the Thai-inspired Little Serow, the Filipino treasure Bad Saint and, since late October, Momofuku CCDC. The last, an import from New York courtesy of cult chef David Chang, was preceded by the kind of media attention typically reserved for papal visits and “Star Wars” premieres. (CCDC stands for CityCenterDC, the newcomer’s downtown location.) A slip of a dessert shop, the related Milk Bar, shares an entrance and even greater fandom.
For the Rip Van Winkles of the world, Chang, a Northern Virginia native who once aspired to be a professional golfer, is a game-changer in the industry. Starting in 2004 with Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, Chang went on to open more than a dozen restaurants, bars and bakeries in Manhattan and around the globe, pop up with regularity on TV and launch Lucky Peach, a hipster food quarterly whose name translates to Momofuku in Japanese.
Washington gastronauts were rightfully expectant.
“Is it worth it?” food lovers often quiz one another when the names of the aforementioned hot spots come up in conversation. At issue isn’t price, but patience. Time is a precious commodity in Washington; the shrimp buns at Momofuku CCDC needed to deliver.
In truth, they rock. The joy starts with a pillowy steamed bun slathered with a zesty mayonnaise and swells with a springy fried shrimp cake and cool shredded lettuce. Bulkier and similarly divine is the steamed bun spread with sweet hoisin and crammed with a slab of roast pork. Yet another filling features sliced shiitakes crisped on the grill and, like all the buns, nestled by the pair in a steamer basket lined with a banana leaf. Carbs, including a peppery noodle soup bobbing with beef short ribs and bok choy, are your friends here.
So are the breezy servers, who win you over not just with their personalities, but with the kind of knowledge that leads you to believe they sat in on cooking lessons by the opening chefs, Patrick Curran and Mark Gears. One server was honest enough to admit the restaurant is not a vegetarian’s dream, and she’s right. While there may not be much meatless action, what’s there, including a few noodle combinations, is well done. Even carnivores can get around “Bitter Korean,” a stack of greens and diced Asian pear tossed with a dressing — bold with crushed red pepper, ginger and fish sauce — and so good it bears the initials of the cook who first whipped it up in New York, Tony Kim. A side dish of smashed potatoes, red and rousing with smoked paprika, cools down with a swipe of yuzu mayonnaise. Meanwhile, the ramen of choice teams snappy noodles in a mushroom broth with a mass of kale and a crisp garnish of crooked chickpea crackers waving from the bowl.
Lest anyone think Chang, 38, is simply replaying his oldies but goodies, Momofuku CCDC has added to its brief opening repertoire a number of dishes unique to the District. Some bow to our Southern connections. To order the tender biscuit layered with hot sauced-chicken, a ruffle of lettuce, pickled celery and a fold of Benton’s bacon is to savor a new kind of country music. The most novel of the noodle dishes, also new, stars ragged ribbons of hand-cut pasta tossed with a sauce made rugged and numbing with chopped beef brisket and Sichuan peppercorns. A drift of whipped tofu scattered with crisp shallots sits alongside the noodles: Ivory, say hello to ebony.
A category called Meat & Fish is a tease, with a mere two dishes. Quality trumps quantity, however. Cut-up rotisserie chicken roosting on warm pea shoots bursts with flavor, thanks to what the cooks slip under the skin of the chicken: butter sparked with ginger and scallions. And nuggets of fried catfish, freckled with white sesame seeds and tingling beneath a chili glaze, morph into the city’s best fish tacos when they’re tucked into Bibb lettuce. The only stroke I might omit is the quinoa beneath the fish, a curiosity that appears to be there just for support.
An enormous, window-wrapped storefront downtown, Momofuku CCDC unfolds in a part of town that has been compared to Fifth Avenue in New York. Um, didn’t Chang, who grew up in Vienna, Va., tell the press he dreamed of opening in a strip mall some day? What sold him on the high-end space, distinguished with a giant peach on one wall and a noodle bar facing the kitchen (“Pick up! Pick up!” shouts the lead chef, practically nonstop) was the structure’s integrity. “The building’s guts were the best I’ve ever seen,” says Chang, who dismissed Georgetown as a home because he didn’t think its population could handle “fish in soup.” Note to chef: D.C. has evolved since you left.
With Momofuku’s debut, Chang says he “lives on Amtrak.” Your best chance of spotting the celebrity chef is on the weekends, which the volatile perfectionist tends to spend in the District. Five minutes before the restaurant opened for dinner one recent Sunday, a huddle of us in the vestibule heard Chang — pounding his fists on kitchen shelves and lobbing f-bombs — before we saw him.
I might have screamed, too, if my pork belly ramen were more pretty than slurplicious and didn’t compare to the city’s best (take a bow, Toki Underground), or if some of my dishes left the kitchen oversalted, as happens here. Other notions, like the slick, blandly sweet pork jerky, dropped off in a waxed paper envelope, are more chew toy than human treat.
“Dessert?” your sunny server asks when the empty plates and bowls are cleared. The lines snaking out of the neighboring Milk Bar, the shop from which the radical sweets are dispensed, inspire a diner to bite. (As a backdrop for selfies, Milk Bar rivals the White House.) So does knowing their creator and Chang collaborator, pastry chef Christina Tosi, the author of a popular dessert cookbook and, like Chang, a native of Northern Virginia. The one-time recipient of Tosi’s corn cookies and lemon-berry crunch cake, both made from scratch by skilled friends, I know the woman can bake.
Sadly, everything I’ve tried from Milk Bar smacks of comfort food gone wrong, from the soft-serve ice cream engineered to taste like cereal milk (and rolled in crushed cornflakes if you ask) to the woefully sweet “crack pie” that appears to be the work of a couple of 4-year-olds left to their own devices with brown sugar, flour and milk. Compost cookies, made using potato chips and pretzels, are, like a number of endings, served in a cellophane wrapper that makes them seem dispensed from a vending machine. If you need a sugar rush, go for the chocolate malt truffles, three to a serving and the least offensive of the lot. Or better yet, have another drink. The bartenders hit some home runs, including the Juniper #3 coaxed from aged gin, apricot, lemon and Campari. Honestly, though, the hard, back-less chairs will dissuade most customers from camping out.
Bragging rights are the only reason for waiting outside Milk Bar. Any lines trailing from Momofuku, on the other hand, tend to reward the patient with a bang courtesy of Chang.