The pork buns are long gone. There doesn't seem to be a scrap of kimchi in the place. There's still fried chicken, but now it's served not with caviar and confit potato, but as a thrillingly spicy sandwich at the bar. There's a new sheriff in charge at Momofuku Seiobo, and he's doing things his own way.
Louis Armstrong said that if you have to ask what jazz is you'll never know, and there's a similar thinking at work at Momofuku. It's not that David Chang, its founder and original chef, is unwilling to define what it's all about so much as unable to. And he's not alone. Paul Carmichael, the chef who has since last year headed the kitchen at Seiobo, the Sydney restaurant that is the only Momofuku outside North America, has been with the company since 2010, and even now says he can't really put it into words.
"What's the bigger influence here?" we asked in 2012, when it was named GT's New Restaurant of the Year. "The superb (and often native) ingredients on the plate or the English and Korean-American backgrounds of the chefs?" We made fun of certain aspects of the décor, discussing the zombie-proof quality of a room with no natural light, its floor-to-ceiling glass, which overlooks a casino corridor, lined with tightly spaced steel bars. We questioned the volume of the music and we lambasted the idea of a restaurant charging $175 a head for dinner only taking bookings through its annoying website. But we also celebrated the originality of the thinking, the tightly professional service, the bold wine list, and the focus on highly polished cooking shorn of the more obtuse and unwieldy aspects of fine dining. A year later, talented British chef Ben Greeno led Momofuku Seiobo to win Restaurant of the Year.
The open kitchen.
This year, the 50th year this magazine has been chronicling dining in Australia, Seiobo came up number one in our top 100 again. Ben Greeno decamped in 2015 to open restaurants with the Merivale group, his sous, Clayton Wells, now runs Automata, while sommelier Rich Hargreave now works for Momofuku in New York. Star manager Kylie Javier Ashton still heads the floor with sparky confidence, but otherwise the team is almost completely different. What's it all about?
There's a more laid-back feel in the dining room, for one - the sense that the staff are in the zone and in the groove rather than twangily on edge. When the chefs are called upon to deliver plates they don't look so pained by the experience. Bookings are still exclusively made online, but that seems less offensive now, not least because reservations can now be made 90 days in advance via OpenTable. The music is still loud, but is it possible it's not quite so loud? Are the wallopingly atonal, intense or aggressive hard-rock, indie and hip-hop tracks now fewer and further between?
Today a Seiobo tasting menu costs $185 at dinner and runs to about 14 small courses. It kicks off with one of those high-low curveballs with which Momofuku often impresses: a small, hot glass of bay-leaf tea, made on a fish-stock base and dotted with bay leaf oil. It's a play on something Carmichael's mother served him when he was a child, albeit with corn crackers and a quenelle of soft butter dolloped with caviar. It's followed by a plate of turban shells, the meat of the sea snail cooked, sliced, marinated and scooped into crunchy little shells fashioned from plantain. It quickly becomes clear that whatever else is going on, Korea and Japan are no longer an obvious part of the flavour profile, and nor is New York or Noma.
Military snail, escabeche and plantain.
Chang gave Carmichael free rein when he handed him the keys to the restaurant, urging him to take it in any direction he chose. It was seeing ingredients he'd grown up with in Sydney's markets that gave Carmichael his inspiration. Here were the cassava, golden apples and taro of his childhood in Barbados, fresh and radiant. He'd toyed with the idea of doing Bajan food in his years cooking in New York, but something was always missing. Suddenly, here in Australia of all places, was his chance: a restaurant fully kitted out with crack staff, a great cellar and a flash kitchen, just waiting to be put to a new and interesting use. The food of Barbados was about to get a platform the likes of which had never been seen anywhere in the world, with all the muscle of the Momofuku machine behind it.
A tonne of casino money was spent on the fit-out, most in the service of the cooks rather than the direct comfort of the customer. The best spots in the house are arrayed Japanese-style around the open kitchen. The other 20 or so seats that make up Seiobo's 40-person capacity are at small plain tables between the kitchen and the five-seat bar. Tablecloths don't enter into the equation, but the glasses gleam and the plates, many of them pretty pastel designs by Mud, have been chosen with care. A wall of glassed-in fridge space is the kitchen's backdrop. In it sit ingredients neatly stacked in a way that suggests Damien Hirst turned tropical: heavy hands of plantains, rows of coconuts, whole fish and sides of pork dry-ageing on hooks.
The glassed-in fridge.
Carmichael likes flavour. Sweet potato forms the base for a black pudding topped with diced cucumber and desert lime, while a Puerto Rican-style sofrito - garlic, red capsicum, onion and coriander sautéed oft and sweet - colours and enriches short-grain rice mixed with big shreds of mulloway. Jerked chicken becomes a crisp shard of chicken skin flavoured with jerk spices garnishing a salad of citrus and smoked chicken wings.
It's the Caribbean stripped of resort kitsch. The bowls sometimes come lined with neatly cut rounds of banana leaf, but that's about it for tropical flourishes; it's on the palate rather than the plate. At the bar, where a short menu of snacks is offered to walk-in customers, a festival of lime envelops grilled kurobuta pork in a cloud of fragrance, the juicy chop resting on a bed of kaffir lime leaves, dusted with lime zest and paired with heavily charred lime quarters. In Barbados, conkie is a pudding of grated pumpkin, coconut, corn flour and raisins steamed in a banana leaf. In the Seiobo version, the banana leaves perfume an ice-cream set on a thick, creamy pumpkin and coconut-flavoured goo, while the raisins are puréed and turned into a thin, crisp sheet.
"Conkie" with banana leaf and raisin.
Some criticisms: true to its roots, perhaps, this food is heavy and rich, and involves no small amount of butter and fat. All that comforting roundness sometimes asks for some acid to mix things up, or the brightness of green things. It'd be nice to see the menu change more, too. Sit at the bar often enough and you'll see plenty of interesting experimentation. You may see swordfish spine, charred and then cracked open to reveal the briny jelly within, served with spring onion, a cheek of lime and fermented hot sauce. Carmichael has been baking saltbread to see if he can make cutters, the rolls stuffed with leg ham or fried flying fish or chicken livers served at rum shops in Barbados. Ask to taste the contents of the preserving jar labelled "Habanero + rum, 31/8", meanwhile, at your own peril. This is not a twice-a-month restaurant for most diners, but with so many interesting ideas in play, it'd still be good to see a bit more movement on the tasting menu.
Then again, that could mean parting with the marron. Split and grilled, the texture of its meat is elegantly contrasted by slippery fronds of young coconut, the flavour intensified by the miso-like richness of koji butter and leaves of mint and chervil, and served with a crunchy buttery roti. Nothing seems forced - rather it feels like Carmichael is testing the waters. He takes pieces of pork loin and shoulder, dusts them with ajowan, grills them with finesse, then tops the pieces of meat with fingers of crackling and offers perfectly sympathetic sides of curried onions and pork-glazed roast pumpkin scattered with fried yellow split peas. The flavours are big, but they're almost never ungainly.
Pork with curried onions and pork-glazed roast pumpkin with fried yellow split peas.
If you like your $185-a-head dinner to come with a view, with more than one (unisex) toilet, or served somewhere that isn't playing Talking Heads and the Pixies (or, if David Chang has his way, nothing but a carefully obscure selection of Lou Reed covers), Momofuku Seiobo may continue to confirm your suspicions that you're living in a world gone mad.
But if eating out for you is at its most exciting when you're tasting something new, or, better yet, witnessing a talented chef finding his voice, and a top-flight restaurant being taken in a fresh direction, but in a committed, thoughtful and sincere way, Seiobo 2016 is going to make you very happy.
For many years at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, perhaps the most interesting of the Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan, the only major piece of decoration was a photo of John McEnroe in his peak tantrum-throwing era. The patron saint of Seiobo is Angus Young, the AC/DC guitarist captured rocking-out in not one but two pictures. Join the dots and you find a restaurant that has more than a dash of irreverence in its makeup.
The restaurant interior.
Today Chang works with scientists to grow meatless "meat", presents forums at Yale, was recently interviewed about the future of food for the World Bank by Jim Yong Kim and is on high-five terms with Barack Obama. He has 15 restaurants now, in New York, Toronto, Washington DC and soon Las Vegas. He has his own food-delivery service, and his own food magazine. But before the empire came the leap into the unknown.
"We just decided to screw it all," wrote Chang of the early struggle to make Momofuku Noodle Bar, his first restaurant, a success. "We figured we had nothing to lose - and we didn't. So we decided to start cooking whatever we wanted." In going his own way rather than trying to follow Chang's style, or emulate the chefs that preceded him here in Sydney, Carmichael has tapped into The Force. Saying "the hell with it, I'm going to do what I want" is the most Momofuku move of all.
What does the current incarnation of Momofuku Seiobo say about dining in Australia in 2016? It says this is a place where the culinary infrastructure of good ingredients, skilled cooks, good wine and - perhaps most importantly - receptive diners makes for a scene in which bold new thinking can flourish. It says there's plenty of good stuff left for us to try, and a few more surprises ahead yet. Here's to 50 more years of saying "bugger it, I'm just going to give it a red-hot go".