I was at some event talking with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the greatest chefs alive, when he told me this was the best dish we’d ever come up with. Not the frozen foie gras at Ko (more about that later), not anything like that—this was the one that made him think, “Why didn’t I think of this first?” That’s insanely high praise. But, smart man that he is, he honed in on something there: this salad is the mission of Noodle Bar in a single dish.
The first year we did it, there were amazing tomatoes at the market pretty much all summer. That’s uncommon in New York—usually it takes until late August for tomatoes to get really good. Confronted with that abundance, we asked ourselves what to do with them. Basil, sea salt, and olive oil were the first things in my mind, the flavors I associated with tomatoes like those. But since we didn’t want Noodle Bar to turn into the sort of “pan-Asian” restaurant that has pizza and bibimbap on the menu, we started to riff on it, to take its flavor profile and twist it to our needs.
Tofu, we realized, could do the same thing mozzarella does in a traditional caprese salad: moderate the acidity of the tomatoes, lend the dish some creaminess, and make it more substantial. Shiso and basil are like long-lost cousins: they have totally different flavors, though they share a sort of mintiness, but they’re used in a lot of the same ways. And the touch of sesame oil in the vinaigrette echoes the nuttiness of good olive oil. The result? A world away from an Italian salad, but a riff on a combination and approach to showcasing tomatoes we knew would work.
- With your knife blade parallel to the cutting board, cut the block of tofu in half. Using a 2- to 2 1/2-inch ring mold (or a narrow straight-sided glass), cut cylinders of tofu out of each slab. Carefully turn each cylinder on its side and slice it in half, yielding 8 rounds of tofu. (Save the tofu scraps for another use.)
- Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Prepare an ice bath in a large mixing bowl. Cut a tiny X or slash into the bottom of about two-thirds of the tomatoes. Drop them, in batches, into the boiling water, and after 10 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the ice bath to cool. Slip the skins off the blanched tomatoes, put them in a bowl, and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cut the remaining cherry tomatoes in half.
- Stir together the vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame and grapeseed oils in a large mixing bowl. Add all the tomatoes and toss to coat.
- To serve, place 2 slices of tofu in each of four shallow serving bowls, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Top each portion with about a cup of dressed tomatoes, season with a pinch of salt and a few turns of freshly ground black pepper, and garnish, generously, with the shiso chiffonade.
Reprinted with permission from Momofuku, copyright © 2009 by David Chang and Peter Meehan. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2009 by Christopher Hirsheimer