So when I was still in culinary school I met this chef, David Chang. He came over to talk about his restaurant and hopefully recruit some people for his kitchen. The restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, was getting some kind of buzz - actually, a LOT of it. (I've read of a lot of people who are positively sick of hearing his name.. the hype is crazy!) His name was heating up, with his French trained takes on Asian inspired dishes his arsenal. However, I had heard some not very nice things about him (like he supposedly didn't like women in his kitchen, and that he had a horrible temper), and even talking to him made me think he was an arrogant bastard.
Naturally, my two buds (fellow cooks Garren and Sung) and I decided to check the place out. Being the token Asians in our classroom, we more or less had an idea of how a bowl of ramen should be, and wanted to see if this guy's stuff was up to all the hype. When we got there, the place was PACKED. It's a sliver of a place on 1st Ave., right beside the much-lamented Krystal's Cafe (once one of the best places to get your Filipino food kick – now closed and whose space was taken over by … David Chang). You could literally lean back from your stool at the long bar and lean on the wall, and if you reached forward you could smack the chef on the head. But anyhoo, this post isn't about the Noodle Bar. I gotta tell you - we didn't really like it. The broth (for me the basis of a great bowl of ramen) was way too salty. Almost inedible, really. The pork buns were hoohah yummeh, but not worth the wait for a seat.
Anyway, fast-forward a few years. David Chang's popularity grows to stratospheric heights. He's multi-awarded, a demi-god amongst his peers, and his Momofuku has expanded (uhm... that didn't sound right). Nowadays he has the Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Momofuku Ko which is his "lab" and fine dining place, Ma Peche, Booker & Dax, Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar for cakes, ice cream and a few savory items (gourmet soft serve, anyone?) and even outposts in Australia and Toronto.
Ssam Bar needed to be investigated. People gush about it, rave about it.. plus Chang is a rock star now! How could you not be curious, right? SO. On an extremely cold and rainy dreary crappy day, I drag my crew with me to meet up with some old friends so we could have a nice lunch at Ssam Bar. Lo and behold, the place was empty. It was also quiet, and quite pleasant, actually.
Since no one wanted to fork over 200 clams to order the house special Bo Ssam - essentially a whole roasted pork butt - flavorful skin and fall off the bone meat - served Korean style with fresh oysters, several condiments, crisp leaves of lettuce and rice. The whole idea is to make a mini burrito. Too bad we were too few to order it.. but thinking about it as I write this piece is making me salivate. Damn.
Not to worry though. There were other nice little dishes on the menu (by the way, this is a "small plates" kinda place, meaning you order a couple of small dishes and share. This is the chic way of making you try as many flavors as you want and show you are a food loving little piggy.)
So the whole deal with this guy is he's a cooking school grad (FCI - one of the best) and he's trained in some of the best kitchens (including working with Jonathan Benno of Per Se at Tom Colicchio's Craft) and at his restaurant he is churning out seemingly simple little dishes with extraordinary flavor using very sound techniques, and some of the best produce and meats from the smallest farms in the region. WHEW. He didn't really do it for me in Noodle Bar, but here at Ssam -- he's come up with some interestingly tasty stuff.
We had this nice little hamachi sashimi served on top of some pureed edamame with horseradish, some pea greens, and some crunchy bits. Great dish to get your taste buds going for other things.
Of course, every one had to try the pork buns. This guy built his reputation on this stuff! If you must order one thing in a Momofuku, let it be this. It's essentially a roasted belly cuapao - simple, well seasoned, and very flavorful - with some cucumbers, scallions and a dollop of hoisin. Ask for some hot sauce. YUM! I'm sure any Chinese restaurant worth their salt can do something like this, but I think they won't use the same quality pork Chang does. It's as tender and juicy as a ham.
I had heard all about Momofuku brussel sprouts. Don't cringe now. I don't understand how so many peeps despise this stuff.. I think it's delicious! In Ssam Bar they roast the sprouts with some fish sauce vinaigrette (patis!) and top 'em off with some rice puffs for texture. I don't know if my friends took to this, but I wanted to drink the sauce from the bowl.
Bahn mi is one of my all time favorite foods. I haven't tried many varieties, though, but the one served here is tasty! Layers of ham, with chicken liver pate, pickled veg, some cilantro and other greens sandwiched on a crunchy baguette. Here is a sandwich I'd love to replicate. In fact.. maybe I will!
Mussels were steamed in this heady broth that again I wanted to slurp up. It was steamed and topped with pickled ramps and grapes. This was the first time I had tried something like this - far from the usual baked with cheese or steamed in wine and herbs. Oh, it was my kind of dish all right!
The last was a hit or miss. I liked 'em but my other friends weren't that into it. Rice cakes, chopped into little bits and quickly wok fried with chinese sausage, ground pork, crunchy scallion, chilies and green onions. Comfort food for me - and perfect with bowl of rice.
I wish that the Milk Bar was open when we went, but alas, I think it was just in the planning stages. We tried the PB&J dessert - a "deconstructed" peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with a peanut butter crunch base, a salty panna cotta (I believe it was saltine cracker flavored, so it had a pinch or two of salt) - probably to have a flavor contrast to the grape jelly too. It was good, though I wish we just had a little ice cream to tame all those rich flavors.
In the end, I was properly stuffed. Seeing that it was raining freezing water outside (ever showered in ice water? that's what it felt like), a nice homey feeling belly was in order. Or to paraphrase an imaginary t-shirt design that blogger Alaina Brown created and posted on this website..
I was "Momofukin' Full".
MOMOFUKU SSAM BAR 207 2nd Ave. (corner of 13 St. & 2nd Ave., New York, NY 10019)