Like wild honey, great wines, and prize Iberian hogs, world-class chefs tend to have their own distinctive terroir. Antonin Carême’s ornate creations were a product of Napoleon’s imperial Paris. Thomas Keller is a Napa Valley chef, not a New York one, and despite his recent attempts to peddle burgers and hot dogs downtown, Daniel Boulud will always be a creature of the Upper East Side. Then there’s David Chang, who perhaps more than any notable chef of the past ten years has cultivated his own idiosyncratic, highly local sense of style and taste. Since the original Momofuku Noodle Bar opened six years ago in the East Village, his empire has grown by only two restaurants and expanded just four blocks. In Chang country, the best seats are at the bar, the gourmet dish is pork belly, not filet mignon, and dinner has a decided downtown quality to it—a sense, as you slurp your noodles and devour your pork buns, that you’re involved in the local culinary equivalent of a midnight rave.
Now, with the opening of his new restaurant, Má Pêche, in the Chambers Hotel on 56th Street, Chang has exported his patented style of dining to midtown. And if anyone thought the chef would adapt his game for this new, more sedate audience, they were wrong. Despite its faux-fancy name (“Mother Peach” in a mix of French and Vietnamese), there are no reservations at Má Pêche, just like at the stripped-down Momofuku venues downtown. There are no tablecloths (the communal tables are made of recycled plywood) and no flatware (disposable chopsticks are provided in cups). The menu is small, by midtown standards, and contains no desserts. The one nod to prosaic expense-account tastes is Chang’s first-ever raw bar, which contains an opulent selection of oysters, shrimp, and King-crab legs, and was manned, when I dropped in, by a rabble of downtown cooks wearing dreadlocks and faded tattoos.
But removed as it is from its native territory, there’s something stilted and slightly off-key about the proceedings at Chang’s new restaurant. Maybe it’s the tall, windowless, subterranean dining room, which looks less like a restaurant than a starkly impersonal underground cafeteria (“I feel like I’m having dinner in Dick Cheney’s bunker,” one wag at my table remarked). Maybe it’s the mezzanine bar, which, unlike the bars at the rough-and-tumble Momofuku establishments downtown, seems designed mainly for drinking $14 cocktails instead of eating. Maybe it’s the steady, remorseless drumbeat of kitchen-slave anthems (Hendrix, AC/DC, Bowie’s The Rise and Fall ofZiggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars), which echo, in an endless, canned loop, down from the rafters, or the presence of the franchise-style Milk Bar stand, upstairs, off the hotel lobby, where delicacies from Chang’s legendary East Village stoner destination (Crack Pie, Compost Cookies, etc.) are being packaged and sold like so many products in a Starbucks store.
Not that anybody in the placid midtown crowd (bewildered hotel guests, corporate functionaries in their well-pressed shirts, Neil Patrick Harris twiddling idly on his iPhone) seemed to be complaining too vociferously about their dinner. “Oh, my goodness,” exclaimed one of my starchy-suited banker friends as he tasted what are undoubtedly the finest pork ribs (sticky, charred, infused with lemongrass and caramel) ever to be served in the vicinity of 56th Street and Fifth Avenue. We also sampled fresh bits of fluke from the raw bar, artfully touched with pineapple; platters of delicious fried cauliflower splashed with fish sauce and mint; and a frisée salad decked, not so successfully, with pork-jowl croutons and wet bits of tripe. In homage to their new uptown address, the kitchen also serves wild snails from Burgundy (in buttery tarragon sauce), and an elegant fusion version of steak tartare (“bò tartare”) made with a mash of Niman Ranch beef, soy, scallions, and mint.
These carefully articulated treats are the work of Chang’s trusted lieutenant, Tien Ho, who used to run the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Ho is a Vietnamese-American chef, who grew up, fortuitously, eating barbecue in Houston and has a facility for fusing down-home goodness (Vietnamese or Texan) with top-shelf ingredients and techniques. The six entrées on his menu include a tragically overbrined fillet of trout; bowls of fat, sweet scallops pleasingly spritzed in brown butter and lime; and an expertly seared Creekstone Farms steak served with a block of crunchy rice-cake frites on the side. Rice noodles make their inevitable appearance buried in drifts of sweet-and-savory Vietnamese-style spicy ground pork, and if you feel like closing a business deal over a truly excellent piece of meat, I suggest the Bev Eggleston chop for two ($62), which is poured with a delicious gravy sweetened with oranges from Seville.
The service at Má Pêche is generally impeccable, in a studiously informal way (such service is a secret pillar of Chang’s success), and the wine list, which is supplemented with bottles from Town, the previous occupant of the Chambers space, is more varied than anything at the Momofuku outlets downtown. As at those establishments, there’s a made-to-order feast available through the arcane Momofuku online reservation system. This one’s called “Beef Seven Ways,” and it contains a refined tongue salad tossed in a plum vinaigrette, various artisanal meat products wrapped in lettuce leaves, and a beautifully braised dinosaur-size beef shank. This impressive hunk of meat caused many of the midtown burghers at my table to take out their phones and start snapping pictures. But be warned. In this awkward, echoing space, the intense, festive quality of the famous pork and fried-chicken feasts downtown is missing. And for $85 per person, you still don’t get any dessert.