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MOMOFUKU NOODLE BAR (190 University, at Adelaide West, 647-253-8000, momofuku.com/toronto/noodle-bar-to) Complete meals for $35 per person, including tax, tip and a Steam Whistle. Average main $15. Open for lunch daily 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner nightly 5 to 11 pm. Closed holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
In a blindfold test, Momofuku Noodle Bar's celebrated ramen is the best in town. But remove the mask and superstar chef David Chang's entry-level resto in the luxe Shangri-La Hotel is just a contender.
The problem is the room itself. No one was expecting the funky storefront in Manhattan's East Village that launched the MoFu brand back in 04, but the cavernous two-storey space on the first floor of the hotel's multi-million-dollar dining pavilion is dull.
Think beige, and lots of it, from the marble underfoot to the communal tables with bench seats to the lateral slats of flagstone on the wall. In other words, the nearest Spring Rolls two renovations ago. All those hard surfaces and cathedral ceilings make Mr. Chang's personal playlist of acceptable tunes ("No Morrissey!") that much harder to hear. From what we could discern above the clatter of everyone's tweeting their lunch, we reckon his copy of David Bowie's Greatest Hits got stuck in the 8-track.
The new 'Fu's food's no problem. Though an $8 salad of lightly pickled cucumber and strips of rubbery kelp splashed with hot sauce isn't worth the lettuce, Chang's signature ramen ($15) more than takes up the slack, a great bowl of slightly salty and perfectly al dente mein in a remarkably rich pork broth infused 'Fu-style with smoky bacon dashi. Its topping of chashu pork belly comes leaner than most, while its soft-poached egg manages to be both firm of white and runny of yolk.
His legendary Chicken and Egg ($15) finds a meaty pan-finished confit thigh on a bed of white short-grain rice dressed with more soft-poached eggs and pickled cukes. Chicken wings ($12) may be cold-smoked, but they pack enough heat to kick-start a nuclear reactor. No bad thing that.
If you've ever had the terrific steamed bao at Banh Mi Boys, you're bound to be disappointed by Chang's much-ballyhooed pork buns ($10), two smallish buns stuffed with sweetly roasted pig, likely from Sanagan's in the Market rather than Hua Sheng on Spadina, spread with a little ho-hum hoisin. But don't pass up the pickle jar ($6), a vinegary capsule of Chang at his peak.
Witness his atomic kimchi stew ($16), a guaranteed hangover cure featuring shredded pork shoulder and soothing rice cakes in a fiery broth that will not only knock your socks off but melt them, too. Knowing Chang's disdain for all things vegetarian, we're surprised to find that his all-veggie Ginger Scallion Noodles ($12) are not only one of the tastiest dishes on the abbreviated carte, but they're vegan to boot.
And because T.O.'s 'Fu doesn't do dessert, a smaller plate of sweetly toasted rice cakes in spicy Red Dragon sauce ($11) washed down with a bottle of original-formula Coke ($4, 273ml) will have to do. Too bad Chang doesn't offer soft-serve peanut butter with Ritz Crackers like he does in the Big Apple.
"I wish," sighs our server.
To get the sort of desserts featured in Chang's Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, available at the front desk for $49, we'll have to pony up the big bucks to sample his $150 tasting menus at Shoto or the $600 prime rib for six at Daisho upstairs.
Maybe $15 ramen and beige aren't so bad after all.