Want to eat at a NY hotspot? Online reservations only

April 12, 2008 8:40:18 PM PDT
When one of the hottest chefs in town opened his newest creation, Momofuku Ko, the rich, powerful and influential immediately set about trying to land a reservation the easy way. They appealed to the chef. So far, they've had little luck.

Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, asked David Chang for the hook up. Sorry, he told her. A former top Microsoft executive asked too. Same answer: Nope. Chang even shut down a top New York chef. Can't do it, he said.

"I've said no to a lot of people," Chang said. "We are not making exceptions. If my parents want to eat there, they have to make a reservation too. It's really quite simple. If we do it for one person, we'd have to do for everybody."

Chang has caused a stir in New York, instituting an online reservation system for tiny Ko's 12 counter seats. It's meant to level the playing field in a city where money and prestige usually ensure access.

"It's egalitarian," he says. "We want to run something honest."

The only way to land a spot is to log on to Ko's Web site, create an account, register with a credit card and take a shot at finding an empty space on a bingo-like grid. Seats are released at 10 a.m. everyday for the current seven-day period.

Some have succeeded - even repeatedly - at eating at Ko, with its $85 tasting menu which emphasizes French and Asian cooking. But there are no moments for indecision - you have to click on a green arrow the moment you see it - and luck seems to play a big part.

It was "a total lark," said Ian Volner, 26, who snared a 6 p.m. reservation on the very same day he logged on - for the first time - about 8:30 a.m.

"I spent the afternoon desperate to get a date," he said. Michael Cabin and two of his classmates at Columbia Law School had been trying to get a reservation at Ko shortly after it opened. During administrative law class, they used their laptops and repeatedly tried to hit the jackpot.

About a week ago in class - bingo! Cabin, 24, got one for four people.

Was it worth the hassle? "Totally," Cabin said. Most, though, have failed.

Reichl got a chance to eat at the restaurant before it officially opened, and tried to secure another seat. She said on her blog that she was turned down, calling her trip there a "last supper."

New York Times food critic Frank Bruni even blogged about it earlier this month, expressing his frustration and amusement. "If you want to eat at Ko, you must muster real commitment," Bruni wrote. "And you could wind up committed."

Adam Platt of New York magazine, who awarded the restaurant four stars, decided that because of the difficulty in getting into Ko, he'd only be eating there once before writing his review.

"Under these trying conditions, getting in the door once, let alone the three times most critics prefer, could take months or even years," he wrote.

Yes, eating at Ko has become "mission impossible," flummoxing foodies and Chang devotees who long to try his third restaurant in the East Village and perhaps the best of the trio.

Chang said he set up his own online system, in part, because his 650-square-foot place is so small. And, he said, he didn't want Peter Serpico, the chef and partner at Ko, wasting his time "trying to play favorites."

The seemingly exclusive system has brought its share of headaches.

Somebody hacked into the reservation system the first time it went online, causing it to crash. There were also incidents involving scalpers - people who scored reservations and were trying to sell them.

"I ... loathe reservation scalpers," he said. "I'd take a bat to their head if I could. You can quote me on that."

Chang apologizes for any grief he has caused, calling the buzz over Ko's opening and the reservation system "insane."

"It wasn't the intent to make people frustrated," he said. "It was just something we thought would be easier. Why would we need a phone? People have the Internet. At the end of the day, it's a silly, silly reservation system. But we have to be straight up. We are trying our best to make some system work that is not corruptible."

Yet in the competitive restaurant business, the survivors are often those who take care of their repeat customers, assuring a good table even on a night when there are ostensibly no reservations.

Chang, who acknowledges he is bucking conventional wisdom, said his fans can head to his other nearby spots, Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssam Bar.

But what if the godfathers of food approached him - French masters like Michel Bras, Pierre Gagnaire or Joel Robuchon?

Chang hesitated, and seemed to indicate a certain flexibility.

"If Michel Bras came in and wanted to eat ... what the hell are we supposed to do?" Chang said. "That certainly causes more of a dilemma. Those are the only people we'd actually consider."