For a time, chef David Chang could do no wrong. Every place he opened over the past dozen years, from Momofuku Noodle Shop to Ssam Bar to Milk Bar, turned into a smashing success, and he's stayed a darling of both restaurant critics and the dining public for more than a decade. Sure, the early days of Noodle Shop and Ssam Bar were rough, as Chang found his way and his reputation, but the restaurants' subsequent massive popularity and critical cred (Ssam Bar earned three stars from the NYT) anointed Chang with what seemed like endless superpowers. Not anymore. In the May 17 New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells panned Chang's new Momofuku Nishi with a one-star review (in which, by the way, he manages to reference the late aggro rocker GG Allin—nice).
The troubles Wells sees start with the physical miseries (an "abusive" noise level, and seats that hurt). Those details don't exactly put diners in the right frame of mind to enjoy the food, which Wells finds self-conscious, clumsy, and lacking in the visceral pleasures Chang usually nails so well.
"Too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it," Wells writes. "In his early days, Mr. Chang served the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, O.K. with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress one another."
The worst misses include a dry and ordinary $55 prime rib, a boring mackerel dish with barbecue sauce, and a chitarra with dried squid and XO sauce that mainly evokes "confusion." Wells does like some of Nishi head chef Joshua Pinsky's cooking at the restaurant (Pinsky formerly ran the kitchen at Momofuku Ko), for instance the raw beef with watermelon radishes, dashi and a flavorful Spanish olive oil, and the sea scallops with dried kelp. But they're not enough to save Nishi from the one-star pan.
Wells's harshest words come at the end of the review, where he says, "Now that Mr. Chang has a dozen years’ worth of protégés and copycats, now that he even seems to be copying himself, now that the rest of us have cooler heads and other options, it’s time to take another look" at what Chang is actually offering.
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