Momofuku Nishi’s Hot Take on Italian Might Leave You Cold
Nishi is the kind of rule-smashing restaurant that must fuel Flavio Tosi’s deepest, darkest nightmares. A couple of weeks ago, Tosi, the mayor of Verona, pushed through a ban on new restaurants run by immigrants, in an effort to “protect” traditional Italian culture. At the Momofuku group’s new Italian-ish restaurant in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Tosi would come face to face with a scarily good subversion of cacio e pepe.
High-quality miso, Japanese fermented soybean paste, can make some of the same umami-powered flavor rainbows as the most exquisite wheel of Italian pecorino. And in Nishi’s cheese-less version of the Roman pasta dish, the chewy noodles are seasoned with black pepper and a chickpea “miso” called hozon, which has been quietly building its flavors for two months under a layer of hardworking mold. Smoothed out with butter and olive oil, this makes for a delicious, habit-forming pile of noodles. It’s also a case of Asian excellence: The hozon doesn’t exactly imitate the pecorino’s funk, putting forth its very own set of extraordinary moves.
Nishi opened in early January with a no-tipping policy and a series of surreal watercolors by David Choe on the walls. The dining room has that Noodle Bar feel—hard and loud and profoundly uncomfortable, with wooden box stools cramped around communal tables that make everything seem much worse than it is.
On cold days, a host stands by the entrance, refusing to open the inner door to the restaurant until the outer door to the street has closed behind you. This makes you stand in the middle: waiting, wanting to go in, like a child.
Later, you’ll understand that the host is battling the draft, not you. She’s making sure diners aren’t hit with a blast of freezing cold air. But in the moment, you wonder if this restaurant even wants you to come inside. It’s the kind of eccentricity that’s tied to the space itself—bad design, which you might easily shrug off in a new place. But Nishi is the product of David Chang’s restaurant group, which has opened more than a dozen locations all over the world and is charging around $30 for entrees at this one. The least Nishi can do is welcome you properly.
Joshua Pinsky, who joined Ko about five years ago, runs the kitchen. The aforementioned ceci e pepe (ceci is the Italian word for “chickpea”) is one of the menu’s strongest dishes, though many other hybridizations are good, too: There are Sichuan-inspired wide, flat noodles tangled up with beef and stained with chili oil, and you'll find a version of the Korean noodle soup su jae bi on the menu as chicken and dumplings, for which the stock has been deepened with fish sauce and smoked shiitakes. The beef crudo carved from aged eye-of-round is beautiful to look at, fluttering with hot-pink watermelon radish, but it came out under-seasoned on two occasions.
A simple side order of fried fingerling potatoes is obscenely good when you get to the smoky gravy of egg yolk and onion at the bottom of the bowl. And the barbecue mackerel entree in a pool of sweet dashi prompted my friend to explain the Japanese word for “homesickness” to me. The menu is quite small, with only two desserts to choose from, but the lovely slice of pistachio cake won’t let you down, especially if you have it with a bittersweet amaro slushie on the side.
Nishi, which translates to “West” from Japanese, has some hits, but it needs to work at being more comfortable—and more inviting—to justify its prices. Until then, the restaurant at least serves up a great, big middle finger to the xenophobia that can hide behind insistence on culinary authenticity. And there’s vitality and fire in a kitchen that cooks on its own terms, one that refuses to accept any of the rules laid out by bullies like Tosi, who presume to say which food cultures are worth more than others. Fire is good. What Nishi needs now is warmth.
Nishi is at 232 Eighth Ave. (Chelsea); 646 518-1919 or nishi.momofuku.com
Rating: One Star (Good)
What to Order: tofu with smoked trout roe ($20); ceci e pepe ($24); chicken and dumplings ($30); barbecue mackerel ($31); fried fingerlings with smoked yolk ($14); amaro affogato slushie ($10); pistachio bundt cake ($13).
Who’s Next to You: cool moms dining with their kids at 5:30 p.m.; groups of twentysomethings in black beanies; finance guys in blue and pink shirts; tourists happy to spend two hours at a dive bar down the street waiting for a table.