Thursday, April 28, 2011

Momofuku Ssäm Bar Through the Years

It's almost impossible to add anything that hasn't already been said about Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Since its opening in 2006, it's become one of Manhattan's most popular restaurants. Under the early guidance of Tien Ho (current Executive Chef at Má Pêche), Ssäm Bar burst onto the scene with three stars by Frank Bruni (after an initial two). Currently helmed by Chef de Cuisine, Ryan Miller, it has remained a fixture on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants since 2009 and has shown no signs of slowing down. So instead of rehashing every meal eaten here, I found it more apropos to examine Ssäm Bar's evolution over the years.

Located on the corner of 2nd Ave and 13th Street in the East Village, while Ssäm Bar underwent an expansion, deviating from its original concept of Asian-style burritos, the restaurant's interior remains largely unchanged: minimalist, with dark wooden tables on one side and a communal bar on the other, leading to an open kitchen in the rear and a retractable window out front. 

It's virtually an unspoken rule that every meal at Ssäm Bar must begin with at least one order of Steamed Pork Buns. Yes, those pork buns. Igniting a frenzy that seemingly knows no end, David Chang had the ingenious idea to combine the best elements of Peking Duck with his love of all things pork. Fluffy Mantou, painted with sweet Hoisin are lined with crisp Cucumbers and Scallion and stuffed with two slabs of unctuous Pork Belly. Needing only a squirt of Sriracha, the buns are good, but not quite the religious experience others make them out to be.

Another wise choice would be an order from the raw bar. On one visit my friend ESC and I split a few Kusshi Oysters from Canada served with a Kimchi Purée. Slightly reminiscent of Gul Kimchi, the briny oysters were even better with the smooth purée, but lacked the heat I've grown fond of during my meals in Korea.

Better yet, was an order of Santa Barbara Uni served with Asian Pear, Guanciale and Shiso. A riff on Thomas Keller's cornets, these were flecked with shiso and hid sweet Asian pear and savory strips of guanciale which beautifully complimented the creamy tongues of uni.

Another winner was the Diver Scallops with Blood Orange, Mitsuba and Scallop Crackers. Served on crunchy crackers, the natural sweetness of the scallops were heightened by the acidity of the blood orange and herbaceous flavor of the mitsuba.

Predictably, the Bread and Butter with Sea Salt, Vermont Butter and Lardo was fine, but nothing special. The warmed baguettes were quickly devoured with a generous slathering of sweet butter and decedent lardo.

The Spicy Honeycomb Tripe with Ginger-Scallion, Celery and Pickled Tomatoes is the perfect dish for those who only want a little offal. Braised until supremely tender not the least bit gamey, the tripe is cut into thin strips and is tossed with a ginger-scallion vinaigrette and mixed with celery, pickled tomatoes and sesame seeds.

Tripe not your thing, why not try the sweetbreads? The Veal Sweetbreads with Almond, Sauerkraut and Thai Chili are deep fried until crunchy. The acid of the sauerkraut and sweet and spicy chili glaze help cut the richness of the creamy sweetbreads, with the almonds adding another textural component.

Ssäm Bar's version of Duck Confit with Duck Liver Mousse, Escarole and Sunny Side Up Duck Egg are for those who appreciate duck in all of its forms. A toasted baguette is smeared with a layer of rich liver mousse, then layered with thin slices of duck confit and is finished with a perfectly fried duck egg. An incredible open-faced sandwich, the pickled escarole was a welcome check against all of the indulgent elements.

A more divisive dish is the Spicy Pork Sausage and Rice Cakes with Chinese Broccoli, Sichuan Peppercorn and Crispy Shallots. It has all the components of an epic dish, save one very important detail: its never spicy! And while I love the crispy/chewy rice cakes with the savory sausage and bitter broccoli, it has never contained the assertive level of heat I know the kitchen is capable of producing, despite my pleas for them to not hold anything back.

A seasonal treat I enjoyed in the past, the Chili Soft Shell Crab with Green Plum, Asparagus and Lemon Confit was practically a celebration of Spring on a plate. The tart lemon confit was a perfect accompaniment to the wonderfully crisp crab and the large stalks of asparagus and sweet green plum made for a rather inspired soft shell presentation.

Another selection from the past was the Creekstone Farms Hanger Steak served with Romesco, Fiddleheads and Almonds. Served medium rare and sliced on the bias, the minerally tang from the meat proved more than capable of standing up to the bold romesco as the grassy flavor of the fiddleheads and the nutty crunch of the almonds provided even greater tastes and textures to the dish.

And then there's the Bo Ssäm. An entirely different, albeit delicious beast altogether. Currently the restaurant's only channel of securing a reservation, it requires not only successful navigation of the infamous reservation system, but also corraling six to ten very hungry friends. Served with a Dozen Oysters, Rice, Kimchi and Bib Lettuce, the whole Pork Shoulder is slow cooked instead of the traditional steamed version. Served whole instead of sliced, eating requires few instructions: simply wrap rice, pork and oysters with some lettuce, top with your desired sauce and shove it into that gaping maw you call your mouth. Repeat and enjoy until you can stomach no more.

Dessert usually meant either dragging your ass over to Milk Bar, or choosing between the restaurant's few options, but now that it has moved to its new location, you have no choice if you don't feel like walking across the street. You could do worse than the Quark Ice Cream with Malt, Chocolate and Beet. Combining chocolate and beets, in some ways this dessert reminded me of one of Alex Stupak's creations at wd~50. Nonetheless, the quark ice cream pairs well with the chocolate and surprisingly so with the beets.

Available only for lunch, the Seville Orange Semifreddo with Grand Marnier and Caramel is light and refreshing in a boozy kind of way. While not exactly a liquid lunch, the alcohol from the Grand Marnier comes through, effectively doubling down on the orange flavor with a semifreddo that tastes even better with the caramel.

Having just announced his first projects outside the U.S., as well as revealing details regarding the vacant Milk Bar space, there's a flurry of activity within the entire Momofuku empire. But while change creates uncertainty, a study of Ssäm Bar through the years reveals that regardless of who is running the ship, they will continue to produce some of the most delicious and innovative food in NYC.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-3500

To see all the pictures from these meals click HERE.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. I preferred this place when it was a brothel....Kinda over overpriced David Chang offerings.

  2. Ssam Bar was never a brothel, despite what David Chang says in his cookbook! I lived in this building for 30 years.