Updated*: Momofuku Seiōbo is everything I love about modern fine dining. It cuts out of the fuss, doesn’t take itself too seriously, delivers something different than every other restaurant and, of course, has amazing food. Yes the system to get a reservation is like trying to get tickets to the most popular gig in town and they’ve only decided to release 30 tickets, but it’s best not to let it ruin the experience. Basically Momofuku is the rockstar of Sydney dining.
The space is dark, sleek and sexy with a few tables dotted on the main floor, a handful of seats at the bar (you can often grab seats here without a reservation and enjoy the bar menu), but the grand event are the stools around the kitchen. Open kitchens have been around for a while, but this is an evolution of the chef’s table; eating whilst you gaze at the theatre of a working kitchen (Chin Chin, Baby and 4Fourteen, amongst others, have similar kitchen seating). There’s no awkward lulls in conversation, or checking your phone when a dining partner goes to the bathroom, when you can watch the chefs flow around the kitchen, prepping and cooking, and swooping in to help each other plate up. There’s also the added enjoyment of trying to predict which dish is next, the plates down the line with curls of sashimi or the small deep bowls right in front of you being dotted with crab and sprinkled with crumbs.
The service also takes a novel turn with the chefs presenting and explaining all of the dishes, mostly with enthusiasm. The wait staff themselves can focus on delivering outstanding service and attention to detail; you never need to wait or ask for anything and often notice that your glass is miraculously full again. The menu is set, numerous courses for dinner and an abridged version for lunch, with wine (including sake) matches or a short but varied wine list; for those wanting to veer away from alcohol there’s a unique juice matching option. The pacing of the meal is timed to perfection, just enough time to get lost in the view before the next dish is presented.
The food at David Chang’s first restaurant outside New York City (his Toronto outfit has recently opened) has dashes of Asian influence but mostly focuses on seasonal Australian produce and ‘global’ cuisine. The kitchen is led by Benjamin Greeno, who has worked with Sat Bains in the UK and the New York Momofuku restaurants, before heading to Sydney to open Seiōbo. The dishes are inventive and fresh, making the most of the produce and pushing boundaries with sweet-savoury combinations, seen best in the petit four of pork fat caramel doughnut. Most exciting to me is the simplicity of the dishes and that razor-sharp focus of delivering perfection on each element, while balancing delicate and strong flavours and textures on the same plate.
My lunch visit began with nori, blood and chicharone snacks; a punch to begin the meal with the rich metallic, yet almost fruity, pig’s blood. The first course is elegant, although not the most memorable dish, with curls of delicate striped trumpeter playing off the crunch of celery and the heady notes of mustard essence. Next is the signature Momofuku pork bun; it is as good as they say, the only disappointment being that you only get one. It is a perfect combination of flavours and texture: soft bun, juicy pork, the gentle salt and acid hit from the pickled cucumber, fragrant hoisin and the kick of heat from the Sriracha. You can imagine being perched at a bar, drink in hand, polishing off a plate of them.
Balls of potato arrive, cooked in beef fat, accompanied by the sweet muskiness of bottarga, and peppery watercress. The potato treads that textural line between soft and undercooked, and the dish is heightened with a falling snow of citrus zest. At this point in service, the chefs are gliding in unison, moving from station to station, and it is addictive viewing. The bowls that have been sitting at the station directly in front of us start being plated up with soft downy crab, miso emulsion and panko crumbs. The miso is smooth and creamy, with a gentle flavour that does not overpower the delicate crab, and the fried panko adds a much needed textural element. This was my favourite dish, simple but perfectly executed, and shows the restraint of the chefs when balancing flavours.
Zucchini is presented in various forms and preparations: raw paper-thin slices, chargrilled chunks, flower and stem; each perfectly prepared. It is served with earthy black garlic and soft unctuous egg yolk that retains texture rather than spilling across the plate. This is another dish that lives on its plays on texture and balancing the subtle zucchini with the strong black garlic. Following is mulloway, with chargrilled lettuce, kohlrabi shavings and young garlic emulsion. The mulloway is perfectly cooked, caramelised yet flaking, and its meaty texture ties well with the young garlic, the char from the lettuce, and the subtle notes of smoked roe in the sauce.
You know there is some serious meat coming when presented with a chunky knife that could be used for hunting. The pork neck is full of delicious pork flavour and works perfectly with the soft sweet cabbage and the notes of oyster coming from the sauce. It is nice to see a hunk of meat served that is tender but has not lost its thick meaty nature. Too often we are given cuts of meat that have been slow-cooked and sous-vided within an inch of its life, and you lose that wonderful feel of cutting and biting through it.
The playful cheese course has cider jelly (on a previous visit it was a sweet piccalilli) showered in light shavings of Bruny Island’s unpasteurised C2 cheese topped with a crisp of rye bread. Dessert is shimmering coins of translucent pear along with native Australian muntries, which have a slightly floral, mildly bitter, apple-esque flavour, laced with glorious honey cream and nutty crumbs. It is a gentle and comforting way to end the meal, despite feeling like you could eat a bowl of the honey cream on its own, but the true finale is the pork fat caramel doughnut. A warm pillowy doughnut, drenched in sugar, and filled with a dark caramel caught reminiscing about bacon.
Most restaurants would not attempt, let alone pull off, ending a meal with a sweet-savoury punch, but it sums up Momofuku perfectly. Rockstars do as they please, invert the rules and constantly surprise. Momofuku has arrived.
*Gallery below has been updated with photos from dinner, June 2013.