Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review: Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Fresh off the 12-days of cooking that was my Greenmarket Challenge, I decided to take a night off from cooking and have dinner with my significant eater at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, the only one of the four Momofuku establishments I had yet to try. The great meal that followed extended my enthusiasm for all things Momofuku.

As a starter we ordered the steamed pork buns, a standby at all David Chang restaurants. Like the pork buns at Noodle Bar and Milk Bar, the buns at Ssäm Bar are a celebration in pork fat: melt-in-your-mouth pork belly with thinly sliced cucumbers and hoisin sauce in a soft steamed bun. It may have just been a night in which I was craving pork buns, but the rendition as Ssäm Bar tasted better than any Momofuku pork buns I have had before, with the pork being particularly buttery.

From the "local/seasonal" section of the menu, we ordered snap peas which, along with eggs and mint, were tossed in XO sauce, a traditional Chinese sauce consisting of dried shrimp and scallops in spicy oil. The snap peas showed why David Chang deserves much of the overwhelming praise he receives; the sweet peas alongside the salty XO sauce created an excellent and unique combination of flavors, with the mint brightening the dish just enough.

Due to the Southerner in me, I have a difficult time passing up a fried chicken dish on a menu and my visit to Ssäm Bar was no exception. I ordered the fried chicken dish, assured that Chang would take fried chicken to a new level; the menu was certainly convincing, even in the teasing way of dishes are described at all Momofuku restaurants: "bell & evan's fried chicken-- ramps porcinis, egg." At least to me, neither of those ingredients can do any wrong. Unfortunately, the fried chicken was the one letdown of the night. While delicious, I was hoping my $24 would get more than two large cubes of crispy dark meat, a few morels, and a very rich egg yolk. Of course, despite my slight disappointment, my significant eater and I all but licked the plate dry. If anything, this dish served as reminder that David Chang is not quite the culinary god that some make him out to be; you expect a fried chicken dish from him to be transcendent, but this one was merely very good.

While perusing the dessert menu, the hostess told us we had to try the ice cream pie, which had recently been added to the menu. We took her advice and ordered the pie, which consisted of the Momofuku-trademark cereal milk ice cream in a salty and sweet cornmeal crust. The pie was served with a compote of tri-star strawberries. The hostess was right on with the ice cream pie; it was excellent, with each element being equally delicious on its own as it was with the other two elements. Some may balk at the texture of the re-frozen soft serve ice cream, which made the ice cream slightly icy and not as creamy as one may expect an ice cream pie to be; my significant eater and I had no complaints.

Like the other Momofuku establishments, Ssäm Bar turns a blind eye to the established rules of fine dining. The room is extremely loud. The service is rushed, although friendly enough. For the most part, the only utensils offered are in a canister of chop sticks in the center of each table. Despite these deficiencies, there is a reason why the restaurant is packed with diners night after night; the food is excellent. If anything, Ssäm Bar's lack of fine dining pretense-- although it does carry a high degree of the annoying hipster pretense -- is refreshing. Most of all, the food at Ssäm Bar makes the deficiencies worth putting up with.

As we left Ssäm Bar, my significant eater and I made a pit stop next door at Momofuku Milk Bar and purchased a slice of "crack pie" to eat at home. We didn't need another pie out of hunger-- the portions at Ssäm Bar are more than adequate-- we just weren't quite ready to end our Momofuku night. Fortunately for us, the buttery slice of crack extended our Momofuku high a little bit longer.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave. (at 13th St.)
New York, NY 10003

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