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David Chang’s Majordomo Is No Minor Feat

Momofuku’s first LA outpost is the most exhilarating restaurant opening of 2018 (so far)

Santa Monica rock crab served three ways

David Chang speeds through Majordomo, his first Los Angeles restaurant, in a super-heroic blur. From the perch of my hard-won bar seat, I sip a soju cocktail and watch Chang manifest everywhere at once. He’s a blip with a furrowed brow among the kitchen’s stainless steel, gray tiles, and legion of cooks; he’s by the kitchen window, conferring with an anxious-looking server about a dinner ticket; he’s standing over a table, nudging the customers to squeeze several lemon wedges over their fried skate with rice. He whizzes around the end of the bar, where two customers break his stride so they can fawn. He smiles, cocks his head, poses for a selfie, mutters something self-deprecating, then barrels off again.

Chang has every reason to keep moving. Majordomo is easily the most exciting restaurant to open in the country so far in 2018 — and his first triumphant opening in several years. Among the defining chefs of his generation, Chang has become an omnipresent force in the food world since 2004, when Momofuku Noodle Bar began upending status quo notions of dining with its melding of cultures and casual formats. Since transforming ramen and steamed buns into ubiquities, he and his restaurant group have christened nearly 20 establishments in New York, Toronto, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Sydney.

His most recent Manhattan experiments have seen some rocky arcs. Ando, a delivery-only restaurant, closed in January after two years of schlepping cheesesteaks, curries, and chicken over rice with uneven results. Momofuku Nishi, a pricy foray into Italian cooking, tangled with several Asian cuisines in a cramped space, arrived in 2016. After a couple of tough reviews, Nishi closed for a remodel and reinvented itself as a neighborhood restaurant where pastas make the most respectable showing. Last week, the company announced it will close full-service Má Pêche in Midtown’s Chambers hotel in late spring, around the time when another Noodle Bar will open in the Time Warner Center.

Eggs with smoked roe

Majordomo isn’t quite a comeback, because Chang never disappeared. But, in tandem with the success of his newly debuted Netflix series Ugly Delicious, this is a clear moment of victory following a spell of midcareer malaise. Geographically and spiritually, he’s tapped into the West Coast dreamscape for his first California venture, taking up residence in LA to focus on Majordomo for the last five months. He’s long vocalized his zeal for the city’s Koreatown, whose presence certainly dwells in his psyche and on his palate, informing the menu in ways often subtle but wholly incontrovertible.

Take the fried stuffed peppers. Three come in an order, each brimming with sausage and context. They are supreme joys to eat: They crunch, they melt, they tingle with heat and leave trails of dusky spices on the tongue. In texture, the batter veers somewhere between chiles rellenos and jalapeno poppers. It’s a deliberate calibration, with the party-snack nod reinforced by a side of herbed buttermilk ranch dip.

But in true Changian style — a don’t-label-me mix of Korean, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, French, and Southern-American flavors and techniques — the dish’s deepest inspiration is gochu jeon, Korean green chiles packed with ground meat and pan-fried. Chang’s mother would make her version in the summertime, using peppers she’d grown in her Virginia garden. For his take, Chang uses slightly fermented, smoky-piquant sock sausage, a specialty of central Tennessee. This particular recipe comes from Allan Benton, the man whose Madisonville, Tennessee, smokehouse became the command center for last decade’s bacon mania — which Chang helped fuel by championing Benton’s products not long after he opened the first Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Crucially, the framework in which Majordomo presents such dishes doesn’t feel like a New York import. In the last few years, media and food obsessives have been finally acknowledging Los Angeles as one of the world’s most dynamic dining destinations. But LA has a history of rejecting gatecrashing chefs who think they can simply show up and woo its citizens with their translations of, say, Mexican and Thai cuisines. (Rick Bayless and Andy Ricker, for instance, have both opened and closed LA restaurants in the last decade.) Angelenos appear to have embraced Chang: Reservations for the restaurant become available at 10 a.m. Pacific Time every morning for 30 days in advance; tables book in seconds. The only other option is to snag unreserved bar seats, which I did for one of my meals by showing up 15 minutes before the restaurant opened. Lines for bar seats often trail into the quiet maze of renovated warehouses, north of the city’s Chinatown, where the restaurant resides.

Majordomo’s airy interior reverberates with the clamor of the crowds

Majordomo falls into the upscale-ish milieu that often defines ambitious modern American dining: a kinetic environment that comes off more refined in service style than his Noodle Bar outposts but decidedly less formal than Momofuku Ko, his Manhattan tasting-menu bastion. Majordomo looks like a restaurant built into a light-filled hangar, its craggy concrete walls softened by partitions of smooth woods and picture windows that frame the courtyard patio, while hypnotic canvases from artists like Taiwanese-American painter James Jean disrupt the palette of grays and browns. Nothing prevents the clamor of the crowd from filling the air like a sea of helium balloons rising to the ceiling and bursting in unison.

The cooking is Chang’s dialogue with Southern California. Some of the food traverses genres into which Chang has previously delved, including a section devoted to bing, his riff on Chinese flatbreads, paired with an array of condiments (maybe butter and caviar, or spiced lamb with labne, or kerchiefs of Benton’s ham). Early star dishes, like the stuffed peppers, leap out, but the menu isn’t crammed with catchy, easily imitated devises — a la the original Noodle Bar’s incessantly copycatted riffs on Taiwanese pork buns. If Chang’s approach to food has always assumed a certain amount of ease with cuisines and the ways they both stand apart and can play together, Majordomo reveals a more assured, multilingual fluency, a chef whose subversive ideas and outsized experiences culminate in a fit of peak creative expression.

The move here is to thoroughly mix and match among the sections — bing, appetizers, market, noodles, fish, meat — to take in the entire mosaic of Chang’s imagination. Certainly include one or two zingers that exalt the West Coast. The kitchen showcases Santa Monica rock crab in three lyrical iterations: cracked claw and knuckle steamed, chilled, and served with a classic mayonnaise for dipping; rice cooked with the crab fat and steaming juices and presented in the shell; and the spindly legs, marinated in gochujang and honey, which are meant to be sucked like crawfish.

Raclette being shaved over the large-format boneless chuck short rib, served tableside

You can witness his matured thought process — and that of his experienced team, including executive chef Jude Parra-Sickels, who held the same position at Roy Choi’s now-defunct Pot in LA’s Line Hotel — even in something as straightforward as the “bounty bowl,” aka the crudite platter that’s been trending around the country for the past few years. A wicker basket piled with lettuces and cusp-of-spring vegetables (young peas, tiny turnips) come with two condiments: a thick green goddess or a take on ranch onion dip (they rotate in and out; either evoke mid-20th-century California) and a ruddy variation on doenjang, the Korean fermented soybean paste.

The mergers of cultures and cuisines crescendo in Majordomo’s large-format presentations. Four or five of them are on offer any given night, and they make securing a reservation worth the headache; most of them come with tableside flourishes that require more room than the bar counter allows. Skate fried rice is the smallest and least expensive of the group options: Rice in a sturdy pot comes showered with scallions, sesame seeds, crisp bits of fried batter, and an egg yolk, ready to be stirred together after additions of chile sauce and lots of lemon juice. (The pop of lemon is vital.) Wedges of fried skate hang out on the side until serving time, retaining their crunch amid the rice’s thrumming textures and flavors.

Several meat bombs are available: Chang’s bo ssäm, the feast of pork belly and oysters he introduced last decade at New York’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. A whopping platter of smoked short rib that feeds four to six; the dish, with its rice wrapping paper and slew of condiments, seems to be in direct conversation with a barbecue-themed episode of Ugly Delicious, in which Chang considers the correlations between Texas smoked meats and Korean barbecue. A smaller, wilder spectacle of boneless chuck short rib braised with Asian pear and daikon and finished with generous globs of pungent raclette shaved right from the wheel. (Amazingly, the cheese becomes an intriguing umami grace note rather than a cymbal crash among the other ingredients.)

These pageantries electrify the senses, but my brain keeps coming back to a subtler boiled chicken masterpiece served in two courses, which draws on French methods, Americana comfort, and his mother’s proclivity for boiling chicken — the result is his own winning synthesis. The kitchen crew brines the bird, trusses it, and then cooks it full-blast in a steam oven in a pot with Shaoxing wine, ginger, and shallots. The breast meat is carved, laid over rice, then blanketed with two sauces: scallion-ginger and a black bean-chile paste. It brings to mind, by design, both Hainanese chicken (the Singaporean staple) and also, in its color pattern, the fish with red and green salsas at Gabriela Cámara’s world-class Contramar in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, the cooks prepare a soup from the rest of the chicken’s meat. It comes to the table while you’re still eating the first course, in a show of abundance. Hand-torn noodles drift in the broth; they at once hearken to chicken and dumplings and sujebi, a simple Korean soup of noodles and potatoes. For the sake of luxury, there’s a flourish of grated black truffles.

Eating this duo satisfied my intellect, as much of Chang’s food does, but also my emotions. If any early signature here is to be replicated by other chefs ad infinitum, I hope it’s this one, which brings deserving dignity to the humble boiled chicken.

Clockwise from left: boneless chuck short rib, rock crab three ways, stuffed peppers, bing bread with accompaniments, and kombu-cured scallops.

Majordomo is still evolving at a steady clip. A coffee-flavored kakigori, the Japanese shaved ice dessert that’s about to have its big moment in America, melted too quickly into a sad puddle; a citrus-cream version fared much better. The deluge of customers, surprising even to Chang, means that servers are still mastering tableside service. More handsome carts are on order to accommodate the instant clamor for the large-format dishes. In 2009, Chang famously derided the cooking of San Francisco as “just serving figs on a plate.” We’re in Los Angeles, of course, but I’ll be curious to return during California’s flush of summer, to see how the menu’s market section rises to the season — and how the kitchen dances between purity and inventiveness in the face of such abject plenty.

The slogan for Chang’s company has long been “Momofuku means lucky peach.” The restaurant’s name — another M-word with four rhythmic syllables — signals a shift. Among several meanings, Merriam-Webster defines the word “majordomo” as “the person who runs an enterprise” and “a person who speaks, makes arrangements, or takes charge for another.” It’s an apt choice. Chang announced last week that he’s also launching an entertainment group called Majordomo Media. He’s entering another phase with grander reach, and the confidence that comes with age.

Will Majordomo’s early promise sustain itself after Chang moves his primary focus to other projects? Who can know. His most precisely articulated restaurants and dishes — the original Noodle Bar, the raucous small plates at Ssäm Bar, the haute marvels of Ko — have historically sustained themselves. But to know the culinary mind and heart of one of the great chefs in our young 21st century, to understand where the thrilling melting pot of modern American cuisine has brought us, this is the place to be.

Majordomo: 1725 Naud Street, Los Angeles, (323) 545-4880, Open Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m. Appetizers and small plates $5-$28, noodles $15-$52, entrees $28-$160, large-format dishes $38-$190.

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