Tuesday, 28 July 2009

New York Gastronome: Momofuku Ssam Bar

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Ave (13th St), Manhattan (map)
212-254-3500 (no reservations)

"Momofuku Saam is a bit ‘so hot right now’ but it really lives up to the hype. Like a Cumulus Inc for Korean/Japanese/Southern fusion. Sounds crazy but it works."
- Melbourne Gastronome reader Blair in email giving me NYC recommendations

American wagyu, cucumbers, ponzu

Having already shared my Manhattan highlights, Brooklyn highlights and amazing lunch at Le Bernardin with you, dear Reader, my last post on my recent trip to New York is all about Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar, a no-reservations casual restaurant in chef David Chang's umbrella of Momofuku eateries, is located in the East Village. As Blair said, it's a crazy combination of Korean/Japanese/Southern fusion. It was also my favourite restaurant in New York!

Momofuku Ssam

Best-friend-K and I rocked up at about 8pm on a Friday night but didn't have to wait too long before we were seated at the long communal bar. The atmosphere was bustling but friendly, and as we downed a cocktail each (followed by an excellent bottle of Grüner Veltliner) we chatted to a couple of New Yorker guys sitting next to us who were only too eager to give us lots more restaurant recommendations.

The first dish that we ordered was relatively plain and simple: cured hamachi with edamame, a delicate horseradish purée and pea leaves ($16). Giving it extra flavour (and crunch!) was the sprinklings of genmaicha, a Japanese green tea combined with puffed brown rice.

Cured Hamachi, edamame, horseradish, pea leaves

Second was the American wagyu (Imperial Beef, NE) with cucumbers and ponzu ($18). The cucumbers had been infused with the ponzu, in the molecular gastronomy style, using a vacuum bag to suck out all the air and to allow the flavours of the soy citrus sauce to penetrate the cellular structure of the cucumber. I know a lot of people hold molecular gastronomy techniques in high disdain but trust me, the cucumber tasted like something from another world. A perfect match for the beautifully-marbled wagyu.

American wagyu, cucumbers, ponzu

Then we had the buttermilk salad (buttermilk from Hawthorne Farm, NY), served with microgreens, pine nuts and an apple dashi ($12). The buttermilk had an almost pannacotta-like consistency, and the dashi broth hit just the right note of richness and tangy sweetness. This was b-f-K's favourite dish.

Buttermilk salad, pine nuts, apple dashi

The last of the savoury dishes was one of Blair's recommendations, the spicy pork sausage and rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and crispy shallots ($18). Loved it: the Sichuan chillies gave the ragù one hell of a kick, and the rice cakes (made off-site, then chopped up and fried separately) had a fantastic spongy/crunchy texture I fell in love with.

Spicy pork sausage and rice cakes

But the dish that really had me clutching at my pearls was the beet and lime ganache, served with goat's milk frozen yoghurt and pistachio crumble ($10). What a dish! Aside from being visually arresting (the white fro-yo, the dramatic scrape of pink ganache and the green nuggets of sugared pistachio), the combination of sweet/salty/citrus/tangy flavours was intensely memorable. Favourite dish of the night!

Beet and lime ganache, goats milk frozen yoghurt, pistachio

An ancient Egyptian Gastronome tucking into a feast, as spotted by b-f-K and me a few days later at the Met. :)

The Met

I enjoyed our meal at Momofuku Ssäm Bar so much that I suggested to b-f-K that we go back there again for our last dinner in New York. Yeah I know, I know, with all that NYC has to offer it's a crime to go back to the same place twice. But in my defence almost everyone we spoke to in New York insisted we head back there, in order to sample the famous pork belly steamed buns. Plus on our second visit we had the added bonus of a bona fide New York celebrity sighting: seated at the table behind b-f-K was the Sausage King of Chicago himself, Mr Matthew Broderick!

The second time around, we started with a few Salt Pond oysters, served with kimchi consommé ($3 each). I want kimchi consommé with all my oysters from now on, dammit.

Salt Pond oysters with kimchi consomme

B-f-K is not much of a pork fan but even she had to admit that the soft soft steamed buns with gloriously fatty pork belly, hoisin, cucumbers and scallions ($9 for two, with a squirt of Sriracha encouraged) were sensational. My favourite dish from our second visit.

Pork belly steamed bunsPork belly steamed buns

The salad we chose the second time around consisted of sweet juicy tender snap peas (from Satur Farm, NY) with mint, egg and XO sauce ($15). The egg had been hard-boiled and then grated - it looked great.

Snap peas, mint, egg, XO

Our last dish was Chicken Fried Chicken (thinly pounded breast and leg, pressed together and double-fried) served with pickled ramps, porcini mushrooms, a little wilted Swiss chard and a vivid scrape of egg yolk ($24). I don't normally eat chicken that's fried (let alone double-fried!), but the batter was light and the Bell and Evans chicken was wonderfully juicy. Loved the flavour of the ramps too - it was the first time I'd tried them.

Bell & Evan's chicken fried chicken

I resisted the urge to order the beetroot ganache dish again for dessert: instead we slipped into the adjoining Momofuku Milk Bar, a space which doubles as a bakery and as a waiting room for tables in Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Pork belly-obsessed New Yorkers can order the steamed buns to go from the bakery counter, along with an intriguing range of pastries, pies and desserts created by Milk Bar's pastry chef, Christina Tosi.

Momofuku Ssam pies

I was tempted to order a slice of Crack Pie (as in, "addictive as"), largely on the strength of the name alone. But even I had to reconsider when the girl behind the counter said that the toasted oat crust pie with the gooey-butter filling was "good, but really sweet". After two weeks of American desserts, I knew that if an American told me something was really sweet it was probably TOO SWEET!

Crack pie

So instead, salty/sweet junkie that I am, I ordered a slice of the Candybar Pie, which contained caramel, peanut butter nougat, peanut brittle and toasted pretzels, with a chocolate crust. I only got through half of it (SO SWEET), but it was damn good pie.

Candybar pieCandybar pie

I was sufficiently intrigued by the sound of a burnt honey and mustard croissant to suggest that b-f-K order it, but she only had eyes for the fro-yo. She chose a most unorthodox-but-awesome combination of flavours: blackberry and rosemary. A great match.

Blackberry and rosemary fro-yo

In short, Momofuku Ssäm Bar pushed just about all of my foodie buttons. How I wish I could go back to New York to sample David Chang's other restaurants!

Friday, 24 July 2009

New York Gastronome: Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street, New York (map)
212-554-1515, www.le-bernardin.com

When best-friend-K and I were in New York, we were put in contact with the charming and debonair T, whose prompt offer to take us out for lunch we gladly accepted. The day before, T rang to let me know that he and his colleague B would be taking us to lunch at Le Bernardin (and to make us aware of the dress code).

Le Bernardin? Le "three-Michelin-stars-four-NYT-stars-fish-demigod-Eric-Ripert" Bernardin? Nom de Dieu, oui!

B-f-K and I made sure we looked presentable and caught the subway to Midtown. Upon arrival at Le Bernardin we ushered to our table by two waiters who materialised out of thin air, seated us and then glided off, Jeeves-like. As we waited for our dining companions to arrive, b-f-K and I admired the nautical-themed paintings lining the walls and the serene-but-not-stuffy ambiance of the restaurant.

Once T and B had arrived, a waiter shimmered over with a shared amuse-bouche to start us off: wondrously soft salmon rillette with toasted flatbread (unphotographed, alas).

Le Bernardin

My first course, from the "Almost Raw" section of the menu, was the kampachi tartare with marinated Japanese cucumber and aged citrus vinegar. Apart from looking amazing, the buttery texture of the raw fish and the piquant flavour of the vinegar was a heavenly combination. I loved it.


My three dining companions all went with the tuna appetizer, which looked equally amazing. It consisted of delicate layers of thinly pounded yellowfin tuna, draped to form a mound over a thin slice of toasted baguette and foie gras, then topped with shaved chives and extra virgin olive oil. Why oh why didn't I say yes to b-f-K's offer of a taste??!


For our main courses b-f-K and I both ordered the salmon. A shadow of a doubt had crossed my mind when I'd ordered it, given the ubiquity of salmon, but I convinced myself that if anyone could reinvent salmon, it would be Eric Ripert.

I was not disappointed. Barely cooked Scottish salmon (just look at the two-tone colour of it!), with a sweet pea-wasabi purée, a smattering of spring vegetables and a citrus-yuzu emulsion. The white Burgundy 1er cru that B had selected (after due consultation with the tastevin-adorned sommelier) to match our fish was so delicious that b-f-K and I got almost misty-eyed after lunch just thinking about the memory of the wine.


B ordered the poached halibut with braised daikon, baby radish and turnips, served in a sesame court bouillon, and T ordered the crispy black bass served on a bed of braised celery and parsnip custard, with an Iberico ham and green peppercorn sauce. The dishes both looked lovely, especially the crispy bass.

HalibutBlack Bass

Before our desserts, we were each brought a "gift from the kitchen": the Egg, Le Bernardin's signature dish. Milk chocolate pot de crème, caramel foam, maple syrup, a dab of caramel liquid and Maldon sea salt, served in an eggshell. It's difficult to choose, but I think I can honestly say that this little jewel was my very favourite dish at Le Bernardin (the recipe can be found here).


That said, the chocolate-sweet potato dessert was pretty damn incredible, both in terms of texture and flavour: dark Amedei chocolate ganache, served with sweet potato sorbet and topped with sweet potato pearls, pistachio, palm sugar and vanilla salt. Bitter + sweet + salt = WIN.

Chocolate Sweet Potato

B unfortunately had to leave before dessert, but T and b-f-K both had the grapefruit dessert (which I believe was vanilla cream, grapefruit sorbet, tarragon coulis and a crisp meringue).


And if that wasn't enough, a selection of mignardises - wrapped in a linen napkin and still lovely and warm from the oven - were brought out with our excellent coffees. There were two kinds of mignardises: pistachio financiers and coconut madeleines.

Petits fours

It goes without saying that the service was impeccable. Upon hearing our evident interest in New York dining, our waiter not only brought me a copy of the menu to keep as a souvenir, but gave me a complimentary copy of the 2009 Zagat Guide to New York Restaurants. Such a pity we only had two days left in New York!

Thank you to Rumpole for putting me in contact with T in the first place, and a big big thank you to T and B for your most amiable company, for fitting us into your very busy schedules and for treating us to such an amazing culinary experience!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

New York Gastronome: Brooklyn highlights

Having already dedicated a lengthy post to Manhattan highlights from my recent trip, I just wanted to also share a few quick highlights from Brooklyn...

Bedford Ave subway, Williamsburg

Our local subway station, Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg. Our beautiful "loftette" was only half a block away and the next stop on the L Train took us straight to the East Village, so everything was very conveniently located.

The loftette

The loftette. I found it through Craigslist - we sublet it for two weeks for a great price. It was small, but it was all we needed, and when CJ came from Canada to stay for the weekend the couch proved to be a comfy bed.

Blackbird ParlourBlackbird Parlour

Just around the corner from the loftette was Blackbird Parlour, a cafe I'd been tipped off about in advance by Lucy from The Design Files. Loved the antiquated look of the place, but after Melbourne standards best-friend-K was pretty seriously disappointed with the unexceptional coffee. The toasted grilled cheese sandwich (with fontina, manouri, radicchio, prosciutto and herbs on sliced pullman, $12) served with red grapes was pretty great though.

Blackbird ParlourGrilled cheese sandwich

Street market in Bedford Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. We'd been told in advance that Williamsburg was hipster central (like Fitzroy, only more so), but we couldn't get over how EVERYONE seemed to be in their twenties or thirties. Are there no old(er) people or children in Williamsburg??


On our first Saturday we went along to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, an alternative festival parade which pays homage to the Coney Island Mardi Gras parades from the early 20th century (or so Wikipedia tells me). It was corny and lots of fun.

Coney Island Mermaid Parade

It was also raining off and on but that didn't dampen the spirits of the thousands of people marching in the parade, in homemade marine-themed costumes. Wikipedia says: The Mermaid parade is well-known for extraordinary marine costumes, and for the occasional partial nudity. (This is not as surprising as it may sound, because it is legal in New York State for women to be topless in public, as long as this is not part of a business venture.) The parade is however very much a family event; it is quite common for at least one little girl's birthday party to march as part of the parade. There are sections in the parade for vehicles of all kinds, for floats, for groups, and for individuals. Mermaids and sea creatures of every shape and size are represented, and the audience is festive and appreciative.

Coney Island Mermaid ParadeConey Island Mermaid Parade
Harvey Keitel at Coney Island Mermaid ParadeConey Island Mermaid Parade

Being an American parade, there were of course several marching bands. This one was marching just ahead of the parade's celebrity monarch - this year Harvey Keitel was crowned King Neptune. He looked a little tired and bemused, poor thing.

Coney Island Mermaid Parade

We liked Five Leaves, a cafe and oyster bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a lot. Fluffy ricotta pancakes for brunch one morning, and brilliantly smokey eggplant dip and pomegranate martinis one evening.

Five Leaves, GreenpointFive Leaves, Greenpoint

We *loved* staying in Brooklyn (rather than being on the island), but still having Manhattan at our fingertips. Brooklyn just seemed to have a more laid-back cosy neighbourhood vibe, especially on the weekends.

Greenpoint, BrooklynMJ stencil

Melbourne Gastronome reader Priscilla recommended that I check out Diner, down in South Williamsburg one block from the Williamsburg Bridge. Housed in a gorgeous refurbished/dilapidated 1927 dining car, Diner has an emphasis on local produce and has an interesting dinner menu that changes nightly. When we dropped in for lunch I tried one of the specials, the Chilaquiles: fried corn tortillas, shredded chicken and tomatillo salsa verde made into a stew (so that the tortillas softened), then topped with two fried eggs, parmesan and scallions. It's a famous hangover cure and I can certainly see why - loved the spicy tanginess of the salsa.


Reader Joeyegger suggested I check out the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Carroll Gardens generally, and the bar/restaurant Prime Meats specifically. Prime Meats was very 90s - 1890s, that is! The place was gorgously decked out in late 19th century style, with intricate pressed tin ceilings, polished wooden bar and slightly tarnished mirrors.

Prime Meats cocktail listApplejack Sazerac at Prime Meats

The bartenders all wore ties and vests and sported impressive facial hair. We looked over the old-school cocktail list (lots of pre-Prohibition ingredients like bitters and absinthe, mmmmm). I ordered an Applejack Sazerac which came with one single big block of ice chipped with a pick from an even bigger block. Less ice cube surface area means the cocktail stays cold but doesn't dilute as fast. It tasted FABULOUS.

We were also very impressed with the German-influenced food (alas, by the time our main dishes came out it was far too dark for me to take any good flash-free photos). Prime Meats is one of the restaurants embracing the current New York craze for in-house butchering, and the meats did not disappoint. The 12oz grilled prime New York strip steak that I had (30 day dry aged Creekstone Farms Black Angus beef, $19) was particularly juicy. But oddly enough the dish that we all liked best was a rather innocuous salad appetizer, the red cabbage salad with walnuts, parsley, balsamic and walnut oil ($8). So simple, but so so delicious.

Moustache at Prime MeatsRed cabbage salad

On the recommendation of our Prime Meats gorgeous vivacious friendly waitress, we continued our cocktail drinking at another Carroll Gardens cocktail bar, the Clover Club. Loved the extra flask on ice they gave me to top up my Gin Blossom!

Clover Club cocktailFresh strawbs

Saturday afternoon Brooklyn street scene in Carroll Gardens - kids playing in water from fire hydrant and an impromptu volleyball game. :)

Brooklyn street partyBrooklyn street party