For better or worse, New York Times critic Pete Wells doesn’t confine his coverage to New York City. And for his latest jaunt outside of the city, Wells headed to Toronto to take a look at Kojin, the most recent addition to David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant empire. His verdict: The restaurant is serving “deeply enjoyable cooking,” and, more important, Chang has turned out to be a skilled restauranteur. It would seem Momofuku is good again.
Months ago, it seemed Chang had hit a rough patch. In 2017, he closed and revamped New York’s Nishi, which opened to poor reviews, because the concept wasn’t working. In the first half of 2018, he closed two more New York concepts: delivery-only Ando and the experimental restaurant Ma Peche.
But Kojin is part of an upward swing. Majordomo, Chang’s Los Angeles debut, was one of the biggest openings of 2017 and subsequently thrilled critics. At Momofuku Ko in New York, chef Sean Gray is serving three-star “affordable luxury,” according to Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton. (It helps that Ko successfully plays into two of the hottest trends of the moment, with elements of French cuisine and an exemplary bar.)
At Kojin, Wells writes that chef and longtime Momofuku employee Paula Navarrete is cooking food that isn’t obviously Changian and this, he argues, is why Chang matters: “Diners and restaurant writers insist on seeing him as the inventor of every scrap of food sold under the Momofuku name, rather than as a restaurant operator who is very skilled — maybe singularly skilled — at creating the conditions other chefs need to come up with food that’s not just novel but relevant to our world.”
While the individual chefs at these restaurants are largely responsible for the excellence of the food, according to Wells, Chang has grown into a praiseworthy restaurateur. Wells notes the “comfort and civility that has quietly slithered into his restaurants to replace the backless seats and argumentative menus of his early years” and that “his ideas have been remarkably consistent, down to the playlists.”
And Chang isn’t completely separate from the successful food at Kojin, Majordomo, and Australia’s Seiobo, which is home to “one of the most successful, exhilarating tasting menus.” Chang, after all, chooses the chefs who, Wells says, “have to fit into the family, but they also have to be individualistic enough to deserve a place in the family.”
Not every critic is a fan of Chang as restaurateur. In response to Wells’ piece, Chicago-based restaurant critic Michael Nagrant tweeted that Chang “needs some work.” But Wells, who also compares Chang to Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, is clearly impressed.
• Why David Chang Matters [NYT]