Of the many new restaurants we've been hungering for — actually, metaphorically — in this town, prominent among them is the first Los Angeles restaurant from chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku Restaurant Group, which includes Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar and the Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko. Chang has been busy lately, preparing to open that restaurant, called Majordomo, and with a new Netflix show, "Ugly Delicious," debuting in late February. He's also an NBC special correspondent for next month's Olympics in Pyeongchang — a gig Chang hadn't really meant to coincide with the opening of his 13th restaurant, which will finally happen tonight.
Majordomo is fitted into an industrial section on the northeast corner of Chinatown, in a former warehouse that, Chang readily admits, is "more than a little" off the beaten path. "If we were going to do something it needed to be different," says the chef, seated at one of his dining room tables, the French doors open to the patio outside on a sunny, chilly-for-L.A. January day. On the corner of the building, a neon sign bearing Momofuku's signature peach above a few Japanese characters is the only marker for the restaurant, a beacon of sorts among the neighboring studio spaces and Chinese wholesalers.
When Majordomo opens for dinner tonight, it will be the culmination of years of location-scouting and R&D and soul-searching — and plenty of eating. "I've been coming to L.A. since forever," says Chang, whose cousins lived in L.A., and whose obsession with Koreatown has been well noted over the years. "I remember the first time I came here with my dad, it was like a golf thing when I was 8. We'd eat at naengmyeon shops."
Majordomo is also a departure of sorts, starting with the name, which means "butler" or "head steward" of a household. "It's a completely misunderstood word," says Chang. "It sounds to me like it's almost Japanese to people if you didn't read it, it has this kind of "Blade Runner"-esque kind of thing." It is, most importantly, not Momofuku. The restaurant itself is also not, insists Chang, a Korean restaurant.
"I don't want anyone to think that we're making Korean food," he says. Why? "Because I don't want to mess with Koreatown. I just have too much respect."
What Chang is making does, however, have a lot in common with Korean food, as does the food he and his team have long made at the myriad Momofuku restaurants. There is his bing bread, a yeasted and griddled flatbread, with which he serves bowls filled with such things as fermented chickpeas with uni; spicy lamb; and soft-boiled eggs with potato chips and smoked salmon roe. There are bowls of fried butterball potatoes, puffed rice, salsa seca, peanuts and whole chiles; tempura-fried peppers stuffed with Benton's sack sausage ("It almost looks like a chile relleno!"); a basket of vegetables paired with chile jam and a riff on a Green Goddess dressing; a plate of rare strip loin with rice, egg and rye bonji, a kind of soy sauce; a bowl of the Japanese shaved ice dessert kakigōri, made with blood oranges, grapefruit and meringues; and hotteok, filled Korean pancakes, stuffed with dates, pistachio and sesame. Also on the menu: pan-fried chow mein, soft tofu, black cod in paper with noodles and cabbage, short ribs with beef rice and shiso rice paper — and yes, Chang's enormously lauded bo ssäm.
In short, it's a mash-up of what excites Chang and his L.A. team, which includes executive chef Jude Parra-Sickels, who opened Momofuku Ssäm Bar and moved to L.A. to work with Roy Choi at POT; general manager and Mozza veteran Christine Larroucau; chef de cuisine Marc Johnson; executive sous chef and Trois Mec alum Debra Keetch; and beverage director Richard Hargreave.
"In New York I have to explain to people what Chinese food is and what Korean food is, and the fact that, no, I'm not Chinese, it's this; no, it's not a tortilla, it's this," says Chang. "And I got so bogged down with explaining stuff and here, it's a given. It's a given that you can blend, you can mix, and if you do it in the right way, you're being super respectful."
Designed by the Momofuku Restaurant Group in collaboration with Toronto-based DesignAgency, Majordomo has a bar and counter seating in the roomy dining room, a private dining room and a big patio courtyard sporting comfortable couches under an open sky and strung lights. With panels from James Jean, ceramics from Adam Field and bar artwork by David Choe, the American Korean artist best known for his murals and graffiti art, Majordomo is both a very pretty space and, if you look closely, sort of a fermentation warehouse. Many of the jars on the shelves and in available corners contain now or will soon be filled with many of the housemade pastes and pickles and other stuff that Chang loves and that propel so much of his food.
"I don't want to buy any fermented product," says Chang. "I have a lab in New York, so we're making stuff and shipping it out; some of that is starters that I want to use. One of the things I really want to do here is make gochujang, doenjang, kanjang — all the jangs. We're doing that; we're figuring out where to hide everything."
Along with the fermented products, Chang is also predictably, understandably, excited about the local produce scene. He dips a sugar snap pea into a little bowl of chile jam, his version of crudite. "Everyone does this stupid dish now, but I've never had the chance to sell vegetables. I mean, we do, but we're here. That's why I put them in the basket this way, not on shaved ice; this is just how my mom serves vegetables from the garden." He picks up a radish from an enormous pile of vegetables. "It's like skiing in Vermont your entire life and then getting to the Rockies. It's like, what the …. This is amazing."
Chang says he's looking forward to opening for lunch soon, to Sunday dinners, to doing whole animal cooking, kids meals and maybe even brunch.
"Am I happier out here? Yeah, I think so. It's a new start, more or less, and I'm terrified — but in a really good way. It's a terrifying feeling because I know I have to move my …," Chang says. "And I know that nothing that we've done before is going to translate to success out here. It sounds like how I talk to my shrink."
Majordomo, 1725 Naud Street, Los Angeles, (323) 545-4880, www.majordomo.la. Open Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30 -10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 -11 p.m. for dinner; lunch will be coming soon. Reservations can now be made on the website. Both street and valet parking are available.