I’ve been eyeing David Chang’s Momofuku group for quite some time. I stumbled across the Milk Bar’s famous Crack Pie at the Union Square Holiday Market two years ago and I have been a massive fan ever since. To avoid being massive, I only have it twice a year, if that. (Aren’t you proud, Alice Waters?) I love Chang’s Lucky Peach quarterly – great images, great layout and stories that aren’t all fluff or how to cook dinner for your 2.5 kids in 32 minutes. Of the many restaurants on my New York City bucket list, Momofuku Ssäm Bar is one I’ve been consistently pushing for since December.
I was beyond ready to love Momofuku…
…and I didn’t.
In Momofuku’s defense, I was fresh off a juice cleanse and, as anyone familiar with this regimine can tell you, it plays merry hell with your stomach/appetite. During the course of a cleanse, I realize I’m not really hungry, but I do miss food – its textures and smells and, of course, tastes. At the end of it all, I want an incredible dining experience, which is the main reason I chose Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
Momofuku only accepts reservations for the bo ssäm pork shoulder (6-8ppl) or the whole rotisserie duck (3-6ppl), and these reservations must be made online. Otherwise, you, like me, must immerself yourself in the chaos of the world’s smallest reception space and request a seat. Momofuku’s seating is primarily communal, with a long bar running the length of the small restaurant and a few smaller tables. All of the tables are set with a bamboo bucket of chopsticks and a slightly smaller stack of paper napkins. The main kitchen is completely exposed so if you, like me, find this completely fascinating, you can watch all the action at the pass.
Okay, onto the food! I started with 3 Royal Miyagi Oysters from British Columbia. These are not oysters I am familiar with, but as I tend to prefer West Coast oysters (especially Kumamto, yum), I assumed these were a safe bet. Wrong. These babies are much larger than I like and their brininess overwhelmed me. They were garnished with finely diced lady apple, lime and a bit of thai basil. I, for one, prefer to garnish my own oysters. I promise I know how! I am not above accepting a chef’s suggested flavor/texture combination, but these were just not for me. It was not the experience I typically enjoy in oysters and, perhaps, not one I am prepared to enjoy again.
It’s hard to come back from a rough start.
This was followed by the Santa Barbara uni, served with pear, mustard oil, and cawanmushi (a steamed Japanese egg custard). The immediate response my first bite evoked was, Ohmydeargod. And then I just stared at the dish. The three-top dining beside me must have wondered if I was enjoying it because all I did was stare at the plate in awe. Chris and I have this philosophy – when you are really enjoying a dish, you eat it slowly because once that last bite is gone… it’s gone. The uni was so delightfully creamy, and the plate was topped with bits of dry, roasted seaweed. I could eat dry seaweed like potato chips, and I have. It was a well-thought dish, one I would certainly recommend and definitely order again.
Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, one does not go to a Momofuku establishment without experiencing the pork buns. So, I ordered the pork buns. I love a good pork sandwich, especially pulled pork. As an amateur breadbaker, it’s the steamed bun aspect of a pork bun that excites me most. Bread being steamed, not baked – it’s amazing! Must. Learn. How. Up to this point, the only pork bun sandwiches I had tried were from Whole Foods, and I won’t say they pale in comparison to those from Momofuku (although yes, Momofuku’s steamed bun is much better than WFs’). The Momofuku pork buns were suprisingly light, despite the inherently fatty nature of pork belly. In a word, I would say they were nice. While I enjoyed them and found them very well-excuted, I wouldn’t say they’re a driving force to revisit.
I finished my meal with the spicy pork sausage and rice cakes – or rather, it finished me. Everyone around me had ordered it, and despite my love for all things tartare (one of Momofuku’s seasonal dishes), I knew this was what I wanted. This is a dish I would go back for. Heck, I’d go so far as to say this is a dish I would crave. The pan-fried rice cakes had a fun and unfamiliar texture, and the ground pork was seasoned with dried red chiles, garlic, toban djan (Chinese chile and black bean paste), kochukaru (Korean chile powder) and Szechuan peppercorns. Each bite is full of unkissables, and I love those unkissables. There are no sausages in the traditional sense of the word, but who cares? I had four mouthfuls of this delicious concotion and as much as I wanted to keep going, I simply could not. Damn you, green juice! The remnants of this dish are sitting in a takeout container in the refrigerator and every time I sneak a bite, I imagine how perfect it would be with an egg on top.
I’m always thinking about breakfast.
Overall, my experience at Momofuku Ssäm Bar was underwhelming. There was nothing wrong with it (except those oysters, but I am willing to admit that’s a personal preference…or lack thereof), but it wasn’t what I would expect from one of S. Pellegrino’s top 50 restaurants. Would I go back? Sure… but not with the same alacrity as my first visit. Then again, when I have a restaurant in my cross-hairs, it’s hard for anyone to talk me down. The food is good and the flavors are everything I was hoping they would be (except briny, I was not hoping for briny at all). Would I recommend it? Eh…it certainly would not be on the top of my list. I know I will be back at Momofuku Ssäm Bar one day – as long as that day is not immediately following a juice cleanse. That was just stupid.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar is located at 207 Second Ave, on the corner of 13th Street. It is open daily for lunch and dinner. For more information, skip on over to their website HERE.