Momofuku Ssäm Bar, NYC

August 18, 2008

On Wednesday, August 13, 2008, I went down to the big Greenmarket at Union Square. Since there had been a few delays, I didn’t arrive at 14th Street until a little before noon and so decided to walk over to the Momofuku Ssäm Bar at Second Avenue and 13th Street. I expected there would already be a long line, but thought I should try it anyway. Zagats, which gives it a high food rating, says: “ssäms are offered for lunch and ‘gutsy’ seasonal concoctions for dinner, but either way, you can expect ‘crushing crowds.'”  So I was surprised on arriving to find no one there and a “closed” sign on the door. But a closer look at the sign said “closed until noon;” that would be in one minute on my watch. Shortly, the sign came down and my crowd of one stormed into the restaurant. Although I had expected to be squeezed into a counter seat, I was shown to a nice table by the window. The brief luncheon menus were already there along with a big bowl of chopsticks and a bowl of napkins, which I was about to discover would be needed.

David Chang, the restaurant’s founder and owner also owns the nearby Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ko, which only seats twelve and is an almost impossible reservation. But it was for the Momofuku Ssäm Bar that he won the 2008 James Beard NYC Chef of the Year award. By now you may be curious about the name. Ssäm is a Korean word for a leaf vegetable which one wraps around bite sized pieces of meat, a sauce and some rice. Here it also includes a thin rice-flour pancake. Momofuku is Japanese for Lucky Peach. It is also the name of the inventor of instant ramen noodles. That explains nothing to me. The Japanese word for “luscious pork” would be more appropriate. 

I ordered a plate of two
Steamed Pork Buns
– hoisin, cucumber, scallions

It doesn’t seem so special, but it was. The pork was luscious and everything worked well together. (As I was headed for the Greenmarket and the restaurant was an afterthought, I did not have my camera. This photo is poached from Martha Stewart.)

My main course was
Sam Gyup Sal
– grilled pork belly, marinated clams, mustard

This photo is poached from an egullet posting and is just approximately what it looked like as it approached my mouth. The plate had seven strips of pork belly with crisscrossed grill marks, a small bowl of mild, spiced mustard, a small bowl of spicy clam sauce and a bowl of steamed rice. Alongside was a big bowl with ten large leaves of bibb lettuce. My preferred way of eating was to put half a strip of pork on the lettuce, add either the mustard or the clam sauce, maybe put in a little rice, fold it over and eat it. It wasn’t too messy, but I did use several napkins. It might seem that the two courses were too similar. They were two quite different variations on the same theme, which happens to be the signature theme of the restaurant so I am glad I tried them.

I enjoyed two glasses of California red wine with the lunch although they were somewhat overwhelmed. Ten minutes after noon a couple showed up, but they only had one course and a Dr Pepper and left before I did. When I left about 12:45, there was one table of three and two more just arriving. So much for the “crowds.”

The lunch had been very enjoyable and a window into the chef’s talent, but it was clear that one needs to go in the evening to really find out what he is all about.

Two days later, August 15, Linda was in Ohio so I was on my own for dinner. I arrived at Momofuku Ssäm Bar a little before seven (with my little camera in my pocket.) All the tables were full, but there were two open stools at the counter. I was cheerfully seated with no wait, raising the average age by several years. I was happy to be on my own as I could not have heard a conversation over the rock and roll and everyone else talking above it. I was quickly asked if I would like a drink and ordered a Loire sauvignon blanc, which was a generous glass and quite nice. The evening’s menu was given to me. It is not large, but it was not easy to choose, particularly since I really had no idea what they would be like. Anyway I made my choices and ordered a glass of California Pinot Noir to go with the meat.

My first course was
Santa Barbara Uni
 – tapioca, whipped tofu,scallions

This was terrific. The portion of sea urchin was generous. (There is more under the tofu.) The whipped tofu with crunchy sprinkles on top was airy and subtle, as it would have to be to complement, and not compete with, the uni. I suppose it could be compared to a Ferran Adrià foam, but it didn’t seem so artificial. The tapioca was in chewy black balls; you can see one in the lower right looking like a blueberry, but there were a lot of them underneath. A bit of googling shows that these are common in Taiwanese Bubble Tea, which is becoming popular in American Chinatowns. Black is a natural color. I think that the effect they added to the dish was a sense of wierdness which helped one forget that the lovely flavor of the uni was in a mushy, almost bland context. Well, the sprinkles and shredded scallions helped in that too, but they were so conventional.

My other course was
Crispy Lamb Belly & Roasted Loin
 – cippolinis, violet mustard

The main point of this dish was the two pieces of very crispy shredded lamb belly formed into little loaves. They are underneath. You can just see the end of one at the right of the photo. They had an excellent slightly spicy flavor and just the right warm crunchiness. I skipped eating the fat attached to the loin slices as I don’t think there is much flavor there as there would be with pork. The onions and mustard added needed zing to them.

I was finished in about forty minutes. There were always a few empty stools at the counter so no one had to wait, but this was a rainy Friday evening in August and the peak of the evening hadn’t arrived yet. I really enjoyed trying the cuisine, but I don’t go along with the idea that it is on a level with New York’s better restaurants, but in an informal setting. I don’t think that David Chang thinks so either, which is why he started Momofuku Ko. I doubt I’ll ever get there, but it does sound good even if one has to sit on a stool for two hours and bloggers can’t take photos.

For a blog report from Off the Broiler on Momofuku Ssäm Bar with many excellent photos click here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar’s website.

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