Momofuku visionary David Chang has made his career by mashing up cuisines and ingredients that wouldn’t seem to go together upon first glance—caviar and fried chicken, truffles with ramen, sea urchin alongside fermented chickpeas. The first version of Nishi, opened in January 2016, was also a meeting of two vastly different worlds: South Korea and Italy. Consumer feedback was lukewarm at best, so Chang went back to the drawing board to rethink the hybrid. In the end, executive chef Joshua Pinsky’s Italian upbringing won out over Chang’s Korean influences. The result? Chang’s first single-cuisine restaurant, Momofuku Nishi.
And it is singularly delicious. The bar was set high from the start, with the red endive salad. The leaves—heavy with a scoop of warm, pungent bagna cauda and bits of walnut topped with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil—are meant to be eaten with your hands to ensure that each bite has the ideal amount of dressing and toss-ins. Don’t let them catch you cutting it!
That kind of every-bite-must-be-perfect quality control is evident in the service, too. Our enthusiastic server, Jasper, doted on me like an Italian nonna. He recommended the Jesera Pinot Grigio from Venica & Venica to pair well with the whole branzino, then gave me a generous pour. (And indeed, the wine’s apricot and ripe pear notes enlivened the fish’s rich herbed brown butter sauce.)
He also suggested we take best advantage of our complementary sourdough focaccia by using it to soak up the remaining juices from the mezzaluna. He was spot-on; the nooks and crannies of the focaccia made a cozy home for the ravioli’s chili-spiked honey.
A robust plate of bucatini—covered in cracked black peppercorns and tossed with a cheeseless, chickpea-forward cacio e pepe sauce—mysteriously showed up on our table. What we thought was an honest mistake ended up being an especially pleasant “compliments of the chef” moment. (In fact, these moments seemed to be happening all over the dining room.) After my first bite, I wondered why I hadn’t ordered the perfectly warming dish of my own volition. I will next time, that’s for sure.
Statement-making cocktails like the Bonji old-fashioned, laced with black sugar (a mineral-laced sweetener most often used in Asian cooking), and the E.V. Oh! Oh!, with cardamom and cognac blended with olive oil, made the libations as much a part of the meal as the mains.
Most things in life trace back to our parents; such sentiment is found in humble desserts like the pistachio bundt slice, derived from a recipe supplied by Pinsky’s mom. Standing out in a subtle shade of pastel green with large bits of crushed nuts scattered throughout the batter and a heaping side of zesty whipped ricotta, each bite tasted like the good old days when I spent hours hanging around my own mother in the kitchen.
The more I cozied up in our booth overlooking the dining room, the more I wanted to find excuses to stick around a little bit longer. I probably didn’t need another round of drinks or dessert, but Nishi’s second act was worth a second toast. At the very least, I have a couple reasons to come back a few more times; I was told that the lobster fra diavolo had to be devoured at least once in my life.
232 Eighth Avenue (between West 21st and 22nd Streets), Chelsea
Take a bite into what Chang’s team is cooking; let us make your reservation.