Mokoloco is a tiny restaurant in Paris 11 eme with an impossibly small open kitchen. So small that the cooks can not have their hips perpendicular to the counter behind and in front of them. Rather, they have to move horizontally, crab-like between the counters. They slot sideways in front and behind one another like a deck of cards being shuffled. To access the low fridges, they squat down with a swivel.
Mokoloco opened as a sandwich bar in 2015 by the duo behind Mokonuts, it has since morphed into a residency kitchen for young chefs. Chef Esu Lee has been running the kitchen since November with his interpretation of Korean flavours.
The dining room is equally small. The front door opens onto the back of one of the diners at the first table. I am tucked in tight at the bar/kitchen but I still get a soft swipe when the server moves behind me. He is the youngest of the bunch with smooth baby skin and a soft moustache. I ask him to recommend something to drink and end up with a young fizzy Deméter wine that tastes like a natural wine spritzer.
Meanwhile, the cooks in front of me are folding around each other and the equipment trying to find their work groove. The only person who isn’t rushing is the pot wash, Jimmy, who at 19:42 eats a bowl of ramen. His sink is empty and spotless. His dinner efficiently dispensed – Jimmy wordlessly starts plating starters, the one station that has been lagging behind. He also preps herbs. Jimmy seems to have an inexplicable edge in relation to the space-time continuum the rest of us struggle with.
I order half the Paris Kimbap amuse-bouche (6€) and two starters- thinking two small portions will be more manageable and allow me (as a solo diner) to experience more of the menu. It’s a mistake that no one corrects. Madame Butterfly (17€) is 2 slices of white bread, filled with large pieces of minced shrimp and then deep-fried and quartered to serve with herbs on top and abundant kimchi mayo on top. Madame Butterfly would come up as an obscure relation to Elvis’s deep-fried peanut butter number on 23andMe. Continental Bibim (19€) is my second choice, a kind of skate rillette served under a crunchy sheet of wonton.
What I should have ordered, the Tartare Galaxy (19€) is being prepared before me much like an elaborate game of dominos. Part of the fascination with places like this is watching the cooks make food in impossible spaces. Four orders of beef tartare mean one plate has to be balanced precariously on the ledge of the sink. The acrobatics in front of me are similar to the skills necessary to have sex in an airline toilet. Though it takes considerably more stamina to get through a dinner service.
If the chef on the beef tartare and the pollock dish station is stressed I can’t see it. He seems to possess that special Zen it takes to chiffon shiso leaves while 20 people are waiting for their dinner.
Chef Esu Lee meanwhile is tending to a flock of baby roosters wrapped in large leaves to protect them from the direct heat of a hot plate. Sheets of smoke and steam float into the dining room and settle onto our clothes and borrow into the pores of our skin. On the Uber ride home, the driver cracks his window to counteract my savoury kitchen reek.
The Shiso leaf chef is in charge of an exquisite main dish: Egg Jjim. A wide low bowl with a centimetre of what looks like chawanmushi comes out of the oven, the cling film it is wrapped in is domed from the steam, and the underside is covered in condensation. A piece of pre-salted Pollock is put on a square of parchment paper to cook on the hot plate, then a cluster of long samphire strands, six mussels steam next to the sink. Back to the chawanmushi, he pours on a brown bouillabaisse, lays on the Pollock and the samphire and finishes with some freshly dressed watercress and a few drops of red oil. This dish is perfect. That I haven’t ordered it wounds me profoundly.
Even so, I have had the opportunity to be within kissing distance of a kitchen in flow and witness one perfect dish. Rick Rubin wrote in “The Creative Act: A Way of Being” The act of creation is an attempt to enter a mysterious realm. A longing to transcend. Perhaps for those of us without the wavelength to transcend to the place where ideas such as that Egg Jjim Pollock dish are formed, the next best thing is being close enough that you leave smelling like it.