Review: Momofuku Nishi
Author & Photographer: Rylen Sigman
232 8th Ave, New York, NY 1001
When you think of David Chang, distinguished restaurateur and founder of the international Momofuku restaurants, you usually think of New York City favorites like Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssäm bar. Many of these Momofuku restaurants are known for their Asian influenced cuisine, from their acclaimed pork buns to their famous ramen. So, I was quite surprised to learn that David Chang had opened an Italian restaurant--Momofuku Nishi. As a lover of the Momofuku restaurants and a lifelong Italian food enthusiast, I had to check it out for myself. With my Foodie Boyfriend™ in tow, I made the trip downtown to see whether it would live up to the standards of the Momofuku Group.
Momofuku Nishi opened in 2016 as part of the Momofuku Group, and is located on the West Side of Manhattan in the Chelsea neighborhood. The name “Nishi” is Japanese for “West.” As its website describes, “Chef Nick Tamburo creates Italian-inspired dishes using unexpected techniques and ingredients.” Nishi is not your traditional Italian spaghetti-and-meatballs establishment, but rather puts a modern twist on classic dishes.
Walking into Nishi felt like I was walking into some executive’s top floor office. Natural light streamed through the wide storefront windows and tasteful modern art graced the tranquil gray walls. Complete with comfortable yet sleek wooden booths and several potted plants, Nishi offered a casual yet upbeat atmosphere that fit in well with its trendy, modern image. The welcoming staff, timely service, and quiet hip hop playlist also helped us relax instantly into our meal. Another notable feature--Nishi serves drinks with reusable metal straws!
To our delight, we were immediately offered complimentary sparkling water after being seated. For a drink, I decided on the Oolong Iced Tea ($5). The tea was unsweetened, simple yet refreshing, a perfectly subtle complement to my food in between bites. (My boyfriend had a Diet Coke, which I believe tastes about the same no matter where you order it).
For appetizers, we decided to start with the Nishi Sourdough Focaccia with Nduja ($15), as we hoped to see if Nishi’s bread could match with traditionally delicious focaccia. I’m pleased to say it went well beyond my expectations--the bread was dense and chewy, lightly crisped with olive oil, and had just the right amount of sour. It paired excellently with the nduja (a spicy, Italian salumi spread), which added a mouthwatering tang to the salty bread. This was a great starter-- not too heavy but enough to whet my appetite. If this were served in all Italian restaurants, I would be very, very happy.
As per the waitress’ recommendation, we also tried the Peach ($14) with perilla and hazelnut oil. I knew peaches were a big part of Italian cuisine from Call Me By Your Name (if you do get that reference, I sincerely apologize), but I was a bit apprehensive about the idea of savory fruit. However, the waitress explained that the dish was created with the classic prosciutto and melon pairing in mind--a sweet, juicy fruit complemented by saltiness and in this case, the nutty undertones of hazelnut. I was surprised to find that this creation worked really well. The sliced peaches themselves were soft and ripe, lightly sweet but not saccharine, and highly refreshing. The hazelnut oil alone was quite salty, but mixed with the sweetness of the peach, it reminded me of tasty snacks like salted caramel corn. I was not a huge fan of the perilla leaves, as their strong herbal flavor was a bit distracting, but overall, I very much enjoyed this dish and think it captured the harmony of melon and prosciutto well.
For a main course, I felt obligated to try a pasta dish. I chose the Bucatini “ceci e pepe” ($20) mainly because I was intrigued by its ingredients. Unlike a classic cacio e pepe, which features pecorino cheese and pepper, this dish involves no cheese at all; rather, as the waitress explained, it uses a fermented chickpea paste (and plenty of butter) to evoke a similarly delicious flavor. As an absolute fanatic of pasta and cheese, I was VERY SKEPTICAL of this claim, but the waitress noted that it’s one of Nishi’s most popular dishes and is never taken off the menu. And truth be told, I was not disappointed when I tasted it. The pasta was pleasingly al dente with thick, chewy noodles, and the sauce was in fact quite creamy. The only real difference I noticed between this and cacio e pepe was that the “cheese” flavor was sweeter, but the nutty and almost squash-like taste of the fermented chickpeas really grew on me. This dish managed to capture the richness of a traditional cacio e pepe without the heaviness that usually comes with consuming ungodly amounts of cheese. My one qualm was that the pepper flakes were ground rather large, which sometimes overwhelmed the flavor of the pasta, but this was overall a successful dish.
My boyfriend decided to order the Nishi Cheeseburger with aged beef, griddled onion, cheddar, and fries ($19) for his main because, “if David Chang can perfect fried chicken, he can perfect a hamburger”. Obviously, the cheeseburger is not a traditionally Italian dish, but we thought it was important to check out the depths of Nishi’s menu. My boyfriend, who is admittedly obsessed with hunting down the perfect burger, found Nishi’s burger to be highly satisfactory. The diner-style patty was thin and compact, yet juicy and tender, allowing the flavors of the toppings (cheese, pickles, shredded lettuce, onions) to come through. The steamed cheddar had a fondue-like richness and the fluffy bun was lighter than a potato bun, yet still sturdy. Although the pickles were numerous and a bit overwhelming to the onions, their tart flavor was cut well by the cheese. The fries on the side were a well-spiced mixture of salty and sweet. We weren’t completely sure how the fries were meant to tie in with the burger in terms of cohesiveness, but each was quite good on its own.
Finally, dessert: the Frozen Vanilla Mousse with amaro and black lime ($12). Unfortunately, this was the one dish that fell a bit flat for us. There were a lot of competing flavors present--the tart black lime and an unknown salty sesame-like flavor--that were good on their own but clashed when put together. The light vanilla mousse (reminiscent of Italian panna cotta) was sadly not strong enough to counteract this odd melange of tastes. I will say that this dish featured a really interesting range of textures, from the gel-like smoothness of the mousse (cue my weird lifelong dream of eating Nickelodeon slime) to the crunchy garnish on top. However, I think I will stick to getting my gelato and cannolis in Little Italy.
To put it simply, David Chang has pulled through in yet another successful Momofuku restaurant. I am happy to report that--with the peaches and chickpea sauce to offset the otherwise heavy carbs that I consumed--I left the restaurant feeling slightly less comatose than I usually do after gorging myself on Italian cuisine. I loved the modern edge added to these Italian classics, which all in all made for an exciting culinary experience.