A selection of dishes from Nudibranch on First Ave.
Photo: Evan Angelastro
There are all sorts of reasons for grizzled restaurant veterans to be slightly wary of the new East Village restaurant. nudibranch, a former pop-up operation that now occupies a brick-and-mortar space among the jumble of storefronts on Lower First Avenue. There’s the quirky name (which turns out to be a brightly colored mollusk on the bottom of the sea). There’s the small set-menu format ($75 for three courses), which has been popular citywide in these COVID times, but can often be more miss than hit in this grumpy reviewer’s experience. And finally, when it comes to the professional pedigree of young chefs and owners, there’s the overused phrase “Momofuku alums”, which tends to conjure up images, in this post-Momofuku era, of tedious country ham tastings. and stale dishes, imitators. Pork buns.
I am happy to report, however, that once seated in the elegant little bar or at one of the polished ash wood tables in the noisy and somewhat cramped dining room, many of these worries and ideas preconceptions disappear. There are some Momofukian touches to Nudibranch, yes, including the location, which isn’t far off from the original. noodle bar; the brand’s spare, all-lowercase, one-page menu; and even an occasional “country ham” offering that includes Korean rice cakes. The three talented young cooks – Matthew Lee, Jeff Kim and Victor Xia – have all worked in various Momofuku outlets (Kim was a busser at Ssäm Bar), but they also learned their craft in other world-class kitchens, including understood Eleven Madison Park and the high Korean destination Michelin Jungsik. At Nudibranch, as one course follows the next, it’s clear that, like most successful chefs, they’ve taken influences from everywhere and created a style all their own.
The first dish we tasted – slices of buttered hamachi arranged in a small round serving bowl with a granita of green tomatoes and a garnish of sea grapes and edible flowers – was almost too good to eat. Ditto for the excellent razor clams that followed, which were cut into small pieces and laid out on their cool, tight shells with an aroma of Meyer lemon, spicy Japanese chili and maesil, a syrup popular in Korean cuisine made from plums. fermented greens. There were also small pieces of scallops in this first group of dishes, laid on grilled seaweed chips and garnished with sliced cucumber and trout roe, and a portion of four frog legs, fried in a flour batter like the chicken they are often compared to, but flavored with a batter made from lemongrass, galangal and ginger, and placed side by side on the plate with a wedge of lime.
The collection of recipes for the second flight of dishes was perhaps even more accomplished than the first, especially if you are not a fan of amphibian members. We sampled slices of squid served on an inky-stained spiced black bean scrim, and large florets of cauliflower cooked a variety of ways, sprinkled with strips of sweet and chewy Chinatown lap-cheong sausage. There was also an elegant serving of pan-fried, candy-sized, sweet shrimp with baby kumquats, among other things, although the item that the tasters at my table couldn’t help but gossip about was a simple portion of cold buckwheat soba that the chefs drizzle. with traditional mirin and kombu-based dashi, then sprinkle shavings of shaved bottarga on top, as they might at great pasta destinations along the Amalfi Coast.
“I would come back just for this dish,” said one of the soba loons at my table, quietly at first, then much louder, as the small room filled with revelers, many of whom shouted to be heard. the din of gathering. Incredibly loud dining rooms are a welcome thing in this not-quite-post-COVID era, sure, but by the time the last dishes arrived we were all screaming in the din too. I have vague memories of delicately sliced pork jowls arranged around chunks of pineapple and pressed and cracked charred cabbage leaves, and a serving of mole-soaked braised turkey neck that probably would have been nicer with a stack of tortillas on the side. I enjoyed my black sea bass (flavored with XO sauce and artfully layered on a layer of Cantonese turnip patties), but the dish ID come back for the mix of assorted mushrooms arranged around a wonky egg yolk and seasoned with a dash of Shaoxing wine.
When and at what time exactly to return to Nudibranch depends, I suppose, on your state of mind. Back in the old world of David Chang, the Viking sounds of feasting and celebration complemented the two-fisted umami heat of the food, but to get the most out of this precise and elegant style of cooking, I suggest booking a peaceful, early evening table. There are playful cocktails to arm yourself with when noise levels start to rise (for maximum effect, try the “gilda martini” jammed with olives and a single white anchovy) and a well-organized one-page list. which contains an entire section of “skin contact” drinkable wines.
At the moment, there are only two desserts to choose from, but to maintain your sense of zen calm, call in the rosette, which is a kind of funnel-shaped Scandinavian pastry in the shape of a flower and topped with five neatly sliced blades. pear on top, arranged in a fan shape.