What if a punk rocker shows up at the Kennedy Center and wasn’t invited? And he wasn’t only not invited, but is conducting an opera in primetime, permanently? It’s happened in the food world: the punk rocker is Chef David Chang, and the operatic opus is his restaurant Momofuku CCDC.
David Chang, the avant garde, lavished celebrity chef with a cookbook, TV show and line of sauces, opened the first D.C. outpost of his famous Momofuku restaurants in what is likely the glitziest section of town, CityCenter. A former Megabus stop and now one of the most expensive acres of real estate downtown, CityCenter now plays home to the playful chef who coined Ugly Delicious: a hashtag to glorify down-home dishes not crafted for Insta stories.
When Momofuku CCDC opened in 2015, alongside its sweet sister, Milk Bar (known for the crack pie calorie bomb), it was an immediate hit. Though he grew up in Vienna, Va.,, David Chang waited more than a decade after starting the Momofuku empire before opening here. Each Momofuku property is slightly different, but they all serve dishes that are flashy and innovative, with varying hints of Asian influence. As a concept, Momofuku also aims to support “local, sustainable and responsible farmers and food purveyors.”
Back in 2015, Chang was anxious about the D.C. spot. In a tweet, he said, “Against my better judgement @momofuku ccdc opens today at 5pm. Good to be back home Washington DC.”
The original menu featured Momofuku classics, as much as they can be called that. It was a selection of the buns that made him obscenely famous (Chinese-style, with pork, scallion and cucumber, awash in hoisin), snacks that nodded to both Korea and the Mid-Atlantic (Old Bay-dusted pork rinds), and the other dish that Momofuku is best known for, ramen.
A couple years later, Chang’s decided to blow the lid off the original concept. He hired a new executive chef and has taken a step back.
This chef is another local, Tae Strain, who’s setting out to develop a menu that combines his extensive experience with his local sensibilities.
“After six years of working in restaurants around the country, I’m excited to come home and bring my experiences together with Momofuku’s point of view,” Strain says. “This region has incredible produce and ingredients that I’m looking forward to cooking with again, from black bass from Virginia to Chesapeake oysters to kohlrabi and sunchokes from local farmers. I’m humbled and thrilled to be given the opportunity to put my stamp on Momofuku CCDC here in my home city, using ingredients that reflect my point of view.”
Chang has given Strain a long leash.
In an interview with the Washingtonian, Chang was quoted as having said, “I was like, ‘Tae, I want you to fuck it up. I want you to find what you can do. D.C. is more sophisticated in its palate, more worldly in its cuisine than the rest of the nation understands, and they deserve a world-class chef.”
While Strain began in the fall, his new menu just debuted. He’s gone profoundly New American, while maintaining many Asian influences.
Those buns and ramen have been wiped away. In its place are small plates like a clam toast (no avocado here), with dill mayo and Sichuan sausage; soupy dumplings and enormous shareable plates like the showstopping rotisserie chicken, a buttermilk-brined chicken made with green curry butter and served with chicken-fat rice and dipping sauces.
Worry not that the carbs are gone, though. Momofuku CCDC has introduced bing, a Chinese-inspired flatbread that Chang is said to have coined himself. The fluffy, tearable, pita-like bread is constantly evolving (currently, made with whole-wheat flour), and is meant to be used utensil-like with seasonal dips that are nearly meals unto themselves. Such dips include the umami bomb of roasted Chesapeake oysters, swimming in cream and spinach and baked under breadcrumbs; and dill-flecked labneh topped with screaming-orange trout roe.
So, can a foul-mouthed superstar chef still be a rebel in one of the most lavish and slick slices of the city? While scooping fluffy brown bread through creamy dips may not be the most elegant, and while messy bits of kimchi may fall on your napkin out of the beef lettuce wraps, the luxe digs are not lost on anyone. These dishes indeed are delicious, but let us not be fooled — nothing here would be confused for ugly.