Food & Drink: Momofuku

Japanese street food has flooded the Toronto restaurant scene of late, with Izakayas and Ramen Houses challenging the traditionally popular all-you-can-eat sushi joints. Authenticity has been the magic ingredient, as Torontonians shun the Korean-owned fusion sushi/barbeque restaurants that have covered the city for years. Ironically, the latest craze has subtly reverted the spirit of TO’s dining scene without anyone really noticing.

The Momofuku brand is the brainchild of Korean-American all star chef David Chang, who conquered the New York dining scene in the space of a few short years from the humble beginnings of a bowl of ramen noodles. Before long, he had the hottest ticket in town: a 12 seat space with no menu, and an elitest, and almost impossible, reservation system. Chefs literally cooked whatever they felt like each night, and New Yorkers couldn’t get enough. David Chang’s range of Momofuku restaurants had earned him the proverbial unicorn: literal carte blanche and a blank cheque in selecting his next dining destination.

The legacy of this cannot be underestimated when understanding the current Toronto dining landscape. Seen by many as kicking off the Toronto chapter of the Offal Appreciation Society, Grant van Gameren (formerly of the Black Hoof and Enoteca Sociale) has alluded to Chang’s success as ushering in a wave of post-recession casual dining superstars. If he could earn global praise for a simple bowl of noodles, then what other simple foods could be elevated to new heights, while still being served by a nerdy girl in jeans and thick-rimmed glasses? Toronto has since exploded into a haven for food trucks and pop-up taco shops, all claiming to reinvent the wheel in a way that us hip young gunslingers could appreciate. Imagine, then, how the city’s anti-elitist, hip foodie elite received the news that Chang had accepted an offer from the soon-to-be-built Shangri-La Hotel to do literally anything he wanted. That’s right. We all shit our pants. The news spread like wild fire on Twitter, and the only conversation you could hear at the local pub or cocktail bar was Mr. Chang and Momofuku.

The concept was elaborate: a four outlet annex to the hotel, with an ambitious cocktail bar, Nikai, atop a recreation of the original Noodle Bar offering its famous ramen, with some of Toronto’s hottest chefs being scooped up for the third floor fine-dining ventures, Daisho and Shoto. We weren’t just getting one restaurant from Chang, but four!

In the meantime, a rival ramen spot was quietly scooping up all the noodle trade in the city. Kinton is only about four blocks away from the Shangri-La, but the tiny spot has been generating lines around the block for months now. Famed for its rowdy atmosphere (every new guest is greeted by all of the staff with a yell of ‘Irasshaimase!’ while J-pop is blasted over the stereo), and lashings of pork fat are dished out. Kinton represents what the Japanese expect from a noodle-bar, and has quickly become one of my favourite places in the city. How does Chang’s interpretation hold up in comparison?

As you might expect with a hotel annex, Momofuku is a very snazzy looking place. High ceilings and mezzanine levels add a touch of grandeur to proceedings, but the mess of hostesses and Jon Favreau lookalikes with iPads at the front door take a while to sort us out from the potential riff-raff. Phone numbers are quickly handed over and we are ushered upstairs to Nikai, the cocktail lounge. This I don’t understand. I came in for a bowl of noodles, didn’t I? Not that it matters, as for all the time it takes to find space between the suits in this brightly lit holding-room and get a drink order in, we receive a very formal text to tell us our table is ready. Just enough time to pay our bill for the cocktails that haven’t quite arrived yet and run downstairs before our table is given away. Ho hum.

Ushered to our communal table, the atmosphere opens up a little bit directly around us. The people next to us seem quite nice and even offer their opinion that we should ‘definitely’ get a Samsung phone instead of an iPhone. I got to borrow their hot sauce later on too. Among all the swank, it’s nice to see that the communal aspect of noodle-bar dining hasn’t been forsaken. Neither has the disorder and chaos, though I’m not sure the last part was so intentional.

You can’t blame our server, who was extremely informative and prompt, though the dishes themselves arrived in haphazard fashion – we were assured that the extra wait for the kimchi stew was due to the different preparation times. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe delivering dishes at the same time. These really are minor complaints though. We’re not paying for a fine-dining experience here. Our tall cans of beer arrive without glasses, as though we’re slumming it at the Shangri-La. Nice Try.

The food is actually impeccable at times, however. The Momofuku Ramen ($15) consists of the most flavourful pork broth I’ve tasted, and is topped with a perfect egg and pork belly that simply falls apart on contact. Heaven.

The steamed buns ($8-10) are similarly delicious, steamed in the pork broth and then wrapped around the belly, chicken, or shiitake mushrooms. A jar of kimchi, however ($7) is admittedly very tasty, but no better or bigger than half the money will get you elsewhere. The kimchi stew ($16) that we waited so long for was really well spiced and maintained much of the character of the kimchi, but with the addition of both rice and pressed rice cakes, became extremely heavy and easy to grow weary of.

Ginger scallion noodles ($12), unfortunately represented a low point. Served cold, they were presented nicely but were plainly dressed and may have been better suited to a small appetizer than a gigantic bowl of dreary noodles.

Questions about our dishes had to be directed to our server, as the 50-something flunky in a cashmere sweater who had led us to our table reminded us that he had no idea what was going on. Once again, we had to pinch ourselves and remember that this isn’t fine dining. That said, it’s not that much fun either.

I certainly can’t begrudge most of the food eaten at Momofuku Noodle Bar. They do make the best ramen noodles for sure. It just so happens that I’d rather have the ones served up at their noisy neighbour, Kinton.

Momofuku noodle-bar: 190 University Avenue, Toronto. M5h 0A3

Hours: Lunch 11am – 3pm  Dinner 5pm – 11pm  Mon.  – Sun.

647-253-8000 – MOMOFUKU.COM

Jen Hunter is Spindle’s Toronto Food & Drink Correspondent. You can follow more of her gastronomic misadventures on Twitter @JennyTreehorn