Whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying that The New York Times restaurant critic Pete “The Punisher” Wells has become a bit of lightening rod for the role and impact of restaurant criticism. Leaving the recent controversy of his review of Locol in Oakland aside, I always look forward to reading his reviews and trying to understand a restaurant from his viewpoint. Thus, I devoured the profile of him that The New Yorker published a few months ago. Learning about his work and process was all well and good, but I think my favourite aspect of the profile was the participation of chef David Chang. I thought it was fantastic that he would go on record with his emotions (anger/disappointment/frustration) about the impact of Wells’ review of the young Momofuku Nishi in Chelsea. Regardless of his motivation for doing so, I think his willingness to take part was admirable, especially given the forum. It is easy for him or anyone to respond to a review, to discount it, but to respond to a review within a profile of the reviewer is more rare. I think it ultimately is a respectful nod to the strange, but at times crucial, relationship between restaurants and esteemed publications. If David Chang has the opportunity to tell his side of the Nishi story and feelings about Wells, then why wouldn’t he do it when The New Yorker comes asking? I think it was an all-press-is-good-press moment.
But it’s not like David Chang needs good press. The crowds come and business stays. And I don’t think it stays because of a brand. Whatever my opinion might be worth to you, I have never had a bad meal at a Chang restaurant. I’ve only been to Nishi once, but I very much enjoyed my meal. I loved the one I had at Ko. If I was a bigger fan of fried chicken, I’d be at Fuku more. Ssam Bar never disappoints. And then there’s Noodle Bar. The place that started it all.
Momofuku Noodle Bar opened a few months before my first trip to New York, and I remember reading about the ramen place that had everyone talking. But I was like, ramen? Really? I wasn’t going to New York to seek out ramen. (Hindsight is 20/20?) In any case, all these many years later, and Noodle Bar still commands a wait. As it should. The food is always excellent, and for me, serves as a reminder of how Chang can take something like ramen or pho or fried chicken or cacio e pepe and tweak it in such a way that makes it innovative and yet still leaves it familiar and comforting. The vegetable dishes at Noodle Bar always grab my attention, easily moving me away from ordering the more popular buns. The pea shoot salad (I think it’s currently being made with chard) is one of my favourite dishes anywhere. Fresh, crunchy, crispy, spicy. I never fail to inhale it. I had a thing for the Hozon chickpea ramen, then the ginger scallion noodles, but now the chicken pho tempts me.
I know that listicles and Best Ofs can often be more about PR than actual tastemaking (I’m looking at you, Grubstreet), but I like reading them, especially the year-end ones. I agree with Bill Addison of Eater who keeps Noodle Bar on their list of Best Restaurants in America. It has been around for more than a decade and is a consistently packed place that both locals and tourists—and critics—like to eat at. I would bet even Pete the Punisher.