Monday, August 20, 2012
Washington, DC 20002
I'm a member of donrockwell.com which is a very big and very active forum for people who love food. There was a thread on there discussing Sakuramen and one of the latest posts gave the place a pretty negative review. I was in disagreement with the post so I wrote about my experience and near the very end I said something like, "It's not Momofuku...blah, blah, blah". So, a subsequent poster said, "Why does it have to be Momofuku?" Well, I was going to respond but I like those forums so I didn't want to start an argument. But, all I kept thinking was, "Well, because I like Momofuku, duh."
This nagged at me for a few days and I kept thinking why wouldn't anyone want to have a Momofuku around then it dawned on me that maybe his idea of Momofuku and my idea of Momofuku (too lazy to keep linking) was maybe a bit different. When I say Momofuku, I always think of the tiny little space all covered in wood (see picture in my post) with some seats around a communal table but mostly at a bar facing the cooks. That was five years ago and that space has since been taken over by Momofuku Ko and it's extravagant prix fixe dinner. So, it's possible they could have been thinking of Momofuku as Momofuku Ko and not the way it was.
At this point, you're probably re-checking the name of the post and wondering if you've stumbled into a different review. Nope. We're still on Toki Underground. I finally got a chance to go back after my first visit five weeks ago (with one failed attempt due to a long line). The best thing I can say, at least in my opinion, is that it reminds me of the Momofuku from five years ago. Everything from the cool, hip, small space to the long lines (people lining up a good 10 to 15 minutes before it even opened!) to the type of food and even right down to the couple dressed like they were ready for the Hamptons that sat beside me. Now, I don't know if Erik Bruner-Yang's career will take off and eventually lead to a pretentious little specialty drinks bar...umm...I mean a culinary empire but when I eat at Toki, I can't help but think how much I liked going to the original Momofuku and how really great and original that experience was.
Abura Tsukemen are noodles cooked in pork fat topped with pork loin and scallions. I ordered, yeah of course I did, additional pork belly also. If that wasn't enough, they also gave you a little tiny bowl of pork fat to dip your noodles or whatever into just in case you were craving more. At first I thought it was a bit of overkill then I thought, "I'm craving more" since the dish doesn't come with broth. The noodles were the perfect foil to absorb the pork fat in this maddeningly rich flavorful dish. Maddening because you can literally see the cholesterol and you know you shouldn't dip pork belly into additional pork fat and yet you do.
On my next visit, I got their Toki Hakata Classic ramen. It came with pork loin, scallions, seaweed, some vegetables, scallions and a soft boiled egg. Additionally, you can see the drizzling of the ever-present pork fat on top of the ramen. This dish, in particular, was another reminder of Momofuku, since it wasn't quite the ramen you're used to but an elevated and unique take on that familiar dish. The broth, the additional richness of the egg, the balance that the vegetables provided, all that fatty pork & pork fat, and the spongy noodles all worked together to build layers of flavors. It's not, at least to me, traditional ramen but it sure is ramen you could get used to.
On my first visit, I ordered their take on peaches and cream. It's been a while and I didn't jot down what I thought then but I remember the peaches, the cream, the filo dough and that I was going to enjoy it slowly. Then, it was gone. So, to put it in technical terms, the dessert was good, I just have a sh*tty memory.
I finally got back to Toki Underground and the food and atmosphere lived up to all the hype that I've read and heard about. However, to me, everything I experienced felt like the same thing I experienced at Momofuku five years ago. It wasn't that the food was great (which it was), it was that this could be the start of something pretty good. Maybe this is the next step or maybe it's another restaurant but whatever it is, it can only mean good things for DC.