A continuation of the ‘Momofuku for you odyssey’.
It’s really about the pork buns.
There are many reasons why you’d go to David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. For one, you’ve got a much better chance of getting a seat here than at its high class sibling, Momofuku Ko. Further, Ssäm was the Chang restaurant that made it to number 26 on this year’s San Pellegrino top 50 restaurants list.
You might turn up seeking an inventive turn with offal. Or looking for somewhere soused in cool where you can sip a seven spice sour, or a seasonal pickle brine martini.
But really, if you’ve made it to David Chang’s flagship restaurant- you’ve probably come for the pork buns.
If you like peking duck, you’ll like the pork buns. If you like steamed pork buns at yum cha, you’ll like the pork buns. If you like meat and squish, you’ll like the pork buns.
They’re an open yawn of doughyness that lives somewhere between the marshmallow consistency of steamed bun flesh and ‘Wonder White’ sandwich loaf. In the crevice you’ll find slices of fatty pork belly, scallions and a lick of hoisin sauce. All that’s left is to add a squirt of chilli and try not to have too much of the sauce trickle down your chin while you eat them.
The pork buns were the first thing we ate at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. They were a tough first act for the other dishes to follow, but months later the legacy of this meal lives on in my kitchen.
Like so many other of the Momofuku sites, Ssäm Bar is an ode to wood walls, floors and furniture, and also to clean lines. There are no reservations at lunch or dinner, except if you’re ordering the special ‘bo ssäm‘- a shoulder of pork, oysters, sauces and bib lettuce for six or more people to share.
|Exterior via www.momofuku.com/ssam-bar|
Arriving early is one way to guarantee a table. The crowd at Ssäm is a mix of local hipsters and tourists. Since hipsters don’t eat early, at 12:00 pm there’s plenty of room for food tourists like us. (Nb when we roll past another evening at 9.30 pm we see a queue of 15 crowding out the glass doors. Sometimes it pays to be early.)
At lunch there’s plenty of space to stretch out and ponder your options. It could be cracked Jonah crab claws from Maryland with harissa mayo, or a selection of artisinal country hams. Then there’s a collection of larger dishes based on quality produce from a network that’s been carefully curated. Further on there’s the tempting lure of daily three course Prix Fixe lunch for $US 25 each. The set menu at lunch comes with choices for each course and the additional attraction of a cocktail to go with (at an $8 surcharge).
A cocktail of sake and homemade lemonade is as refreshing as a a dunk in a backyard pool on a stinking hot afternoon. For the first course The Hungry One goes for the pork buns. I steal one. In the interest of trying what we can, I go for the plate of pickles.
It’s a very large and generous selection of kimchi, and other pickles; cauliflower, fennel, cucumber, mushrooms, carrot and – delightfully- rhubarb. The portion size was confronting. In my past pickle-life they arewhere I turn for piquant relief in a meal. Here they’re the languorous star. It’s a little unsettling.
It would be like making an double episode of Will and Grace, starring just Karen. Similarly, I find pickles great fun in small doses, but grating after an extended period. But in amongst it all was the revelation of pickled rhubarb. Bisected into ridged half moons it was blushing pink- sweet but tart. It’s the personification of perky. A veritable cheerleader of a pickle. This one I like. Lots.
Not all of the food we had at Ssäm is cheerful. Some of the food is downright aggressive.
David Chang has said that it’s no coincidence that Momofuku sounds a little like ‘motherfucker’ (Momofuku, 2009). And some of what we ate that day was in your face, particularly when it came to seasoning, portion size and spice. My spouse; The Hungry One, who can eat more chilli, salt and pork than anyone I’ve ever encountered was flatly stopped in his tracks by his main course.
It was rice cakes with pork sausage, chinese broccoli and crispy shallots. A man-sized meal. In amongst the tumble of carbs and meat there were whole chillis bobbing about. The rice noodles were squat and solid, compressed and fried like crispy gnocchi. Their interior is chewy, a little like a cross between halloumi cheese, calimari and pencil erasers. What gilds it together and what stopped The Hungry One was the slick of fat coming from the pork sausage and a generous whack of salt. He turned to the drinks list for relief, taking respite in a Korean beer- OB, then a Mexican Coke (sweeter and less acidic, probably because Mexican coke uses cane sugar rather than corn syrup). Still, he couldn’t finish the plate.
My main course was a horizontal landscape of lamb sausage, deckled with fennel seeds with a potato puree and pickled cucumber. It was an interesting twist on bangers and mash. It was also a much easier plate to plow through.
Ssäm Bar, like the other Momofukus is pretty darn confident about its points of difference to other restaurants. The atmosphere is decidedly casual and the staff are friendly and informal. Like the rest of the clan, here the music plays a large part in crafting the ambience. On the day we went it sashayed from Bob Dylan to The Clash; all at a volume that’s a bit louder than what your mum would play.
For the 26th best restaurant in the world, the savoury food we sampled was intriguing, but more rustic than we expected. While the spice and funk of the food pulls it in one direction, its commitment to quality producers means it’s not hard to draw a tangent between here and the spirit of St John, or Chez Panisse.
But if you want a reminder for why this is a restaurant with serious game, it’s worth considering the desserts.
Both that we had were a nimble pairing of sweet and savoury, with unexpected twists.
A deep blueberry sorbet was paired with splodges of labne, the crunch of meringue and sweetly pickled slices of carrot. It’s a little like a mucked up Eton mess. It was inventive, beautiful and very very clever.
The other was a piece of pie made good of the promise of sweetcorn. Here the vegetable becomes a into a buttercup sweet filling. Beneath it the crust is punctuated by pretzel shards, while fresh seasonal berries turn it into a song.
To me, the guts of a great meal isn’t necessarily about loving every course. It’s more about the one or two which make you raise your eyebrows, cock your head to the side and smile. It’s about helping you look at food differently, until you itch to get back to your own kitchen and start mucking about again.
So; roots and vegetables. No more simple roasting or steaming for you.
I came for the pork buns, but it’s the way with fresh produce I can’t forget. And after eating that rhubarb pickle and sweetcorn pie, there’s no chance either of you are going to sit quietly in my kitchen any longer.
Consider yourself warned.
You don’t mind loud music while you eat.
You like inventive cocktails (available at night).
You respect quality produce and don’t mind paying a little more to make sure that the producers sourced it with dignity.
You like desserts which push the boat out a little.
You like a bit of heat with your food.
207 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10003, United States
Underground: 3rd Avenue – 14 Street