Chef David Chang, based in New York, is one of today’s most brilliant and inventive chefs. We have eaten at some of the restaurants in his Momofuku restaurant group, including Ssäm Bar, Ko and Má Pêche. It’s quite an empire that was built from his original quest to bring the perfect ramen bowl to New York. He has been lauded with a few James Beard Awards, a couple of Michelin stars (for Ko), and named as an influential/interesting man of the year by several publications including GQ and Time. With restaurant branches in Toronto, Canada and Sydney, Australia, it is probably a rare site to see Chef Chang behind the kitchen at any of his 10 restaurants (not even counting any of his 5 milk bars). So it was a no-brainer for us to sign up with the Copain Supper Club featuring Momofuku and Chef Chang as soon as it was announced – we at least got to save the cost of a couple of plane tickets.
Much has been written about Chef Chang’s inventive takes on Asian-influenced food. His wide influence on the food world is not just relegated to restaurants. As one of the founders of the excellent Lucky Peach quarterly, he helped re-invigorate the printed version of food magazines (note the first out-of print issue on Ramen sells for almost $200 on ebay now). He is also the subject of the PBS series, the Mind of the Chef, that allows us inside access to the successful Korean-American chef and restaurateur. The series shows some of the work he does with his crew at the Momofuku Culinary Lab, where they combine science and cooking to come up with new twists on food – such as making Japanese dashi broth with pork, rather than fermented bonito (tuna).
Some of the items developed by the Momofuku Lab eventually end up at the restaurants. It was the crew of Momofuku Lab that Chef Chang brought with him for this once-in-a-lifetime event as the last of this year’s Supper Club series at Copain Winery, outside of Healdsburg. As part of the dinner, they also brought in noted Sommelier Robert Bohr, formerly of CRU and now running Grand Cru Wine Consulting in New York, to do the wine pairings.
It wasn’t just the Momofuku “pop-up” dinner that enticed us; we are also big fans of Wells Guthrie’s Copain Winery. Guthrie’s winemaking style is more French than Californian, as terroir, rather than big jam and fruit, is reflected in his wines.
We entered Copain’s beautiful tasting room and were promptly greeted with two glasses of the excellent Guy Larmandie’s Cramant Grand Cru Champagne poured from Magnums:
Crisps in various forms were offered to pair with the bubbly: flattened chicken skin (bottom), pork rinds, scallop chips (similar in style to shrimp chips), fish skin and a shitaki mushroom. The salt and slight spiciness of some of the chips did go well with the refined and elegant champagne:
Wells Guthrie and David Chang addressed the diners prior to dinner. This is where Chef Chang explained that the crew cooking for us tonight were members of the kitchen lab, and that many of the items that we would be eating this evening have not been served in any of his restaurants yet:
Each place setting included the wine and food menus which revealed that we would be having about 15 different tastes paired with 10 wines. To complement the various starters, the first 2 wines were poured: an excellent Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo (Cabin in the Snow) from the Akita Perfecture in Japan (left) and a 2011 Domaine de Vens-le-Haut Altesse Rousette from Savoie, France. The rice wine could easily be compared with other sakés in the highest Daiginjo classification as the rice has been polished down by 50%:
The first dish served was a teacup filled with very fresh tasting Santa Barbara uni (sea-urchin) served with soft, milky tofu:
The first course came as a group of 5 items. Most of the other dishes were served family style, where platters were passed around to the 10 diners at each table. The flaky sashimi style fluke was served with bits of pistachio. The low-fat fish was placed between sheets of konbu seaweed, adding extra umami flavor to the delicate flesh:
Our table was then served 2 bowls filled with strips of geoduck served atop cucumber, pepino melon and flavored with a little bit of chili oil. Not generally big fans of geoduck in general, this turned out to be the best preparation of the bivalve that we have ever had. The sweetness of the melon (similar to honeydew) and the slight spice of the chili was a nice surprise and paired really well with the saké:
The appetizers continued with the dry aged sirloin tartare that were blended with oysters. Topped with slightly bitter radish, it formed a perfect bite:
At some point, one of the wine glasses was filled with the 2009 Copain Pinot Gris which also paired well with the appetizers. The miso-marinated striped bass was served wtih bits of cashew and crunchy pearls for added flavor and texture:
The last appetizer of the first course focussed on eel served 2 ways in matching cylindrical forms: as a brandade “lumpia” and as a dashi broth. The Momofuku lab focusses on several methods of preservation and fermentation so it’s easy to see how this dish came out of some experimentation. The dashi was light and packed with umami flavor:
The servers brought out 2 Burgundy glasses for each diner and poured 2 different Copain Pinot Noirs: the 2009 Kiser ‘En Haut’ and the 2009 Monument Tree. It was an interesting way to have a semi-vertical tasting of the Copain Pinots. They were both equally good; however, we didn’t necessarily agree that this was the right wine to pair with this next dish, spiny lobster served over crispy potato noodle and lab-made XO sauce. The Hong Kong based XO sauce is a spicy condiment usually made with a lot of dried items (fish, shellfish, ham) mixed in with peppers, onions and garlic. When we questioned the assistant sommelier about the pairing, she confided that although she agreed with us that a Riesling might have been a better choice, the team felt that the diners would be ready to move to a red wine. We felt the delicate Pinots were overshadowed by the spice, but in the end it didn’t really matter because the dish and the wines were all great:
The next course brought visible gasps from everyone since it was the famous Momofuku pork buns that were brought to the table. One diner at our table excitedly stated that this was worth the price of the admission alone. There have been many imitations, but Chef Chang’s version remains the best, loaded with some unctuous pork belly, cucumber and hoisin sauce. Lab-made gochujang sauce accompanied the upscale pork buns:
We were about half-way through our dinner when a warm basket of pull-apart potato buns were brought to the table. Everyone was still pacing themselves, so there were few takers for these tasty soft brioche buns:
Thimble-sized lab-churned butter topped with different kinds of salt served in oyster shells were also provided for each couple:
At this point of the meal, everyone had several glasses on the table, and what might have been carefully planned wine pairings was quickly losing any discipline or structure. You can’t really blame the servers since it was probably hard to keep track of which glass contained which wines. They reused glasses as the evening moved along, and refilled with whatever wine was on hand:
The wine chaos really didn’t matter in the end since everyone was clearly having a great time. The intimate dinner limited to 40 guests, was an excellent experience overall. Click here to view the rest of the dinner (Part 2).