Pete Wells: At Nishi, David Chang “Seems to be Copying Himself,” And That’s Not a Good Thing


Decades ago, David Chang used to serve “the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, O.K. with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress one another.” Unfortunately, that’s bad news for Nishi, Chang’s restaurant which opened in January in Chelsea.

“Searching for money, for love and for food, we strike bargains,” Wells begins in his review for the New York Times this week. The bargain that we make when we eat at Momofuku Ssam Bar or Noodle Bar or any of Chang’s other restaurants is that you’re going to be pretty uncomfortable, and Chang is going to break a lot of the rules that you’re used to.

Mr. Chang and his customers struck a deal that made decades of dining tradition look obsolete. He and his cooks could make Asian ingredients bend in new directions.

The cooking could be gloriously unwholesome or willfully esoteric or stunningly precise, but it was never quite like anything else out there. In return for tasting these new sensations, Mr. Chang’s customers gave up amenities that used to be automatic at restaurants hoping to be taken seriously.

When it comes to inflicting discomfort, Nishi still holds up its end of the bargain.

You reserve seats instead of tables, which you’ll probably share with other diners. The chairs are uncomfortable. And the noise is deafening. Chang says they’re working on the acoustics, and that it’s making him crazy too, but they’re doing the best they can.

For the most part, the food does not fulfill its end of the deal.

The best things on the menu are great. They are “exquisitely controlled plates of cold vegetables or protein that could easily fit into the lineup of a marathon menu at Momofuku Ko,” where executive chef Joshua Pinsky used to work. “Shavings of watermelon radishes and raw beef veined with white fat are sprinkled with ponzu-enhanced dashi and a Spanish olive oil that really stands out.” The raw mackerel ad scallop dishes are “extraordinarily good” as well.

But that’s where it ends. “Snails and anchovies seemed to be straining to keep a $55 prime rib from seeming ordinary and slightly dry.” The famous ceci e pepe isn’t quite as good as cacio e pepe, its inspiration, because “it’s missing that wild pasture flavor of sheep’s milk.” It’s one of those cases where you shouldn’t mess with a perfect original. Also, “too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it.”

Drinks are another story. The margarita is “clever in the right way,” and the wine list has a “satisfying range,” which is a “far cry” from where Ssam bar in its first year. Why then, couldn’t Chang’s sensibility with his food evolve too?

Overall? One star.

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