Any interested foodie in Sydney could probably tell you a few things about Momofuku Seiobo; the amazing food they’ve had or heard about or really want to try, the crazy online registration and booking system, that steamed pork bun. Does anywhere else in Sydney book out in less than two seconds? Astounding. David Changs ego must be beside itself. To be perfectly honest I was willing to wait out the collective thrill this town seems to have about The Stars hottest ticket but the other half had other ideas. A few attempts and a good dose of determination secured a couple of seats. Not so hard, really, but had it been me I would have surrendered after the second failure. What’s all the hype about?
The first time I walked through The Star I was so distracted by the illuminated candy colours at Zumbo that I didn’t even notice a restaurant behind the slatted window opposite it. All that suggests you’ve arrived at Momofuku Seiōbo is the polished and stylised cut-out of the peach that comes hand-in-hand with the Chang empire. Momofuku = little peach in Japanese. It also happens to be the name of the bloke that invented instant noodles but I’m certain nothing of that sort makes it past the threshold.
A massive door opens into a dark, semi-cosy room. Smiling faces greet you, check you in and within a few breaths you’re escorted to your table or stool at the kitchen counter. Designers haven’t really gone to town on the layout of this place other than make it functional, easy on the eye and make that kitchen the focus. It doesn’t mean they’ve scrimped on anything either. The seats at the tables look way more comfortable than the counter stools, but who needs comfort when you have front-row seats an arms reach from the plating action? And what’s with those mirrors on the kitchen bulkhead? A great look and practical at the same time as the floor staff look up to see if your bowls are empty rather than peer over your shoulder. Tricky.
$175 takes care of the food bill but if you’re willing, as we were after a little tailoring, pay an additional $95 and your drinks are covered as well. When booze is matched to a meal I don’t really mind partaking but when we learn that sake is part of the journey, both of us were a little hesitant. I can drink the stuff now and again but to be honest I’ve never really enjoyed it. Give me wine, voddy, beer any day but distilled wine made from rice … well … heartburn moves in and it ain’t pretty or comfortable. Plus the soapy flavour doesn’t agree. The sommelier helped replace any sake with wines thanks to her patience and knowledge and after a few sips of her suggested samples we were on our way. Man, talk about high maintenance drinkers but one certainty is they make sure you’re ok with everything at this establishment.
And the food journey begins. It’s snack time, yes? A large share plate of paired morsels swiftly lands in front of us with a speedy explanation of each mouthful. Did I catch them all? Not really. But they were simple enough to work out. Dehydrated shiitake chips loaded with savoury flavours and soft but very firm jerky-like texture, crisp smoked potato tube filled with creamy mashed potato and apple gel and powder, harpooned seared mochi filled with shiitake purée and dusted in spice and puffed nori crackers that resembled prawn chips. A variety of flavours, textures and a little teaser for the remaining fourteen courses.
A lot has been said about the next dish. Steamed pork bun. People in NY and beyond rave about it across all forms of media and seeing I didn’t try it on our last trip to Manhattan I was curious, to say the least. I mean really, pork belly in a bun sounds like last supper food to me. In fact it is. Pork belly simply must be on the table when I know I’m about to croak. As for the Momofuku steamed pork bun … well … most of you may want to load up your ammo as my world didn’t tilt off its axis as much as the first world did after it ate its first Chang pork bun. Yes the 5mm piece of tender belly was perfectly meaty and fatty, teamed with thin shards of cucumber, spring onion and hoisin (sriracha chilli sauce if you wish) but that bun was like being hit with a cold spoon. Dissolved in seconds, no substance, stuck to the teeth, what am I missing? I know it’s meant to be light as a feather but personally I just didn’t like its texture.
Three short and delicate ribbons of striped trumpeter are sliced and centred on plates, dabbed with crimson blood orange and dusted with furikake. It’s almost too pretty to touch but you’ve gotta do something with it, right? Gorgeous clean flavours and great to see the use of fish from local waters.
I’m instantly enamoured with the white asparagus and marron. Simple appearances gave way to incredible flavours from the juicy and sweet Western Australian marron (crayfish), lemon purée, pan-fried white asparagus and spring onion, veal tripe and szechuan sauce. Wow! And before you scream the word tripe, you wouldn’t even know it was there. Simply stunning.
A beef dish that’s blanketed with a dainty radish ‘flower’ may be photogenic but it’s only when you stir it together that you can appreciate all of the layers. Small cubes of cooked beef sit wading beneath thin discs of crunchy radish in a murky emulsion of dried watermelon skin oil and black beans. The black emulsion leaves a nutty film of oil on the palate and even has a slight hint of ash. Sounds bizarre, looks like a right old mess when you mix it up but tastes quite good paired with whatever we were sipping at that point in the game.
I adore smoked eel wherever I am and almost always order it when I see it at Japanese restaurants. The rich, sometimes pungent flavour and aroma, the oiliness, I love it. The smoked eel here comes a little different to the Japanese versions I’m more familiar with. It’s far from being rich and is instead delicate and flaky and held together with creamy dollops of sunflower seed purée and sharp pops of pink grapefruit flesh. The accompanying bowl of smoked eel dashi is nothing short of divine.
The seafood theme continues with our next course – mud crab, Yorkshire pudding and pepper sauce. The crab is a billowing mound of sweet flesh almost drowned in a sauce that initially began with salty and peppery flavours but finished with a slight bitterness. I was hoping the pudding would contain a little of the sauce as it was a little on the dry side but to be honest there was enough of it around the crab.
The slow-cooked egg didn’t excite me too much, unfortunately. Texturally it’s just like under-set custard and without the other flavour and texture components of puffed brown rice, green tea leaves, brown butter and chicken jus, it would have faded into the background. Had there been a bottle of soy sauce nearby I would have lunged at it.
Another easy-on-the-eye dish is the hand torn pasta, goat cheese, chilli and mint. I’m really not sure where the chilli came into the story but the aerated goat cheese took me by pleasant surprise with its very mild and silky texture that coated the large shreds of pasta. The crunchy fried mint leaves a great but the show-stopper is the occasional bright red pickled cherry tomato that’s a slap of tart sweetness when it pops as you bite it.
Striped trumpeter makes another appearance on the degustation set and is roasted this time around. Cooked to perfection, might I add. An arc of squid ink-blackened fennel purée sweeps across the plate to a small mound of wakame and delicate feather of fried fennel.
So far our meal had a couple of wow moments – the marron, the eel – and the next dish ranked up there as one of my fav’s. Simply described as lamb neck, cauliflower, mustard … but I guess that’s all it really was. The perfectly-cooked roll of pan-fried then oven flashed lamb is cooked medium rare the way it should only ever be eaten. It sits glistening beneath a light drizzle of pan juices and mustard seeds, a golden floret of roasted cauliflower, purée of the same vegetable and a small piece of pickled daikon. Loving the dagger that comes with.
A cheese course is next in the line-up – grated Pecorino that smothers small pieces of sake jelly, honey licorice and topped with a shard of star anise tuile. Personally I find the cheese quite mild in flavour, more like a Manchego, and the balance of sweet and chewy jelly does it wonders. Easing into the sweets, the next course of wattle seed meringue, malt ice-cream and crispy milk is a crunchy texture explosion. Hard and soft pieces of meringue lay the foundations to not-very-sweet icecream and golden wafers of teeth-shattering milk skin that has a surprising salty flavour.
I haven’t really mentioned anything about what drinks we had paired with the dishes as I didn’t really take note of them. All wines were fantastic, red, rosé and white but somehow the beer that came with the next dish threw me off guard. This Japanese espresso stout is definitely an acquired taste. Dark and rich molasses and strong coffee flavour with a harsh bitterness that something like radicchio brings to the table. Somehow it was meant to complement the miso ice cream but adding extreme bitterness to a very salty icecream didn’t work for me. On its own, the ice cream didn’t work for me; gorgeous creamy texture but as much salt as Dutch licorice, if you’ve ever tried it. Love the treasure of toasted rice pudding, mochi and pickled fruit on the side, though.
Degustations always end with dainty petit fours and as many are already aware, Chang takes an alternate route with this tradition. Some of the most tender and incredibly sweet pork shoulder I’ve encountered, swimming in golden juices with a few gloriously caramelised bits of chewy toffee-like skin that gave me goose bumps. As with petit fours, no cutlery is given. Just a warm rolled towel. Looking around, everyone gleefully licked their fingers clean. No towel required. Ok, I’ve had my fill now and I’ll be adding that pork shoulder to my last supper table as well.