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!


Brett H said...

hmmm.. I don't know. Maybe I just don't get it, maybe one has too be there to appreciate it better....I'm sure everything you mentioned tasted fantastic, but honestly most of the menu items 'look' like something the cat regurgitated.

But I'll stick with you Claire, if you tell me it's good I'm going to believe you :-)

claire said...

"like something the cat regurgitated"?!?

Aw Brett, your comment makes baby Jesus cry. *sniff*

Lucky old cat, I say!

I'll grant you that some of the dishes (eg the spicy pork, the slice of candybar pie) look kinda sloppy in my photos... but let me try to shift the blame on:
1) the poor lighting (I've had to tweak the photos so they appear less murky, but they've lost def);
2) my crappy camera (which has a pretty trust macro but has a complete nervous breakdown whenever the lighting is poor - see point one); and
3) my dubious photographic skills.
These dishes were awesome, honest!!

For some infinitely superior photos of these dishes, allow me to point you here, here, here and here! :)

fennb said...

Oh... wow.

I didn't realise, but when I got to the end of this post I actually had to pause for a moment as I was salivating so much.

Momofuku really does sound amazing - I must try to check it out next time I'm in the US.

Fantastic post by the way - Also, I feel your pain re: photos - Taking decent photos of food in venue, at night, in environments that are lit for aesthetics, not photography is frustratingly hard, even with pro equipment.

Also, dunno about you, but I've found higher end restaurants generally aren't that keen on punters whipping out high end DSLRs with giant lenses (or any cameras) a lot of the time.

Looking forward to the last US bit -


PS: Go Abe Froman!

Jess Ho said...

Oh, I have been wanting to go here since I visited NY. I only found out about it when I left.

Oh, those buns.

Pretzels and sweet have never made sense to me, I don't know why. But yes, I remember all NY sweets being just that...SWEET.

Brett H said...

....ok... I take it back, am I allowed to un-say it?

Nice links... illustrates your point perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Oh god, the pork belly buns.

I may need some time alone now. I miss them so much.

SecretFoodieMel :-)

Eating Melbourne said...

Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! Those pork buns are the bomb. I would go again in a flash.

claire said...

Hey fennb. Re photos yes it's the blogger's dilemma. All my photos are taken, flash-free, on a teensy little digicam that fits in my jeans pocket - I'm sometimes disappointed with the quality of the photos, but I can be quick and discreet when taking photos in restaurants. Using a bigger SLR in the circs would be cumbersome, time-consuming and anti-social. Plus my dining companions would call me a wanker. :)

Jess, Mel and Eating Melbourne: the pork belly buns really do live up to the hype. Love.

No need to take the comments back, Brett! Glad you like the links. :)