Monday, October 15, 2007

Momofuku Ssam Bar

207 Second Ave.(at 13th street), New York, NY

I wanted to love David Chang's Ssam bar… really I did.

I’ve been smitten with him ever since I first read about his desire to bring his Korean background to the forefront of his cooking. I’ve greedily read his recipes for seasonal pickles and have heard marvelous tales about his Bo Ssäm, which some have claimed as the most succulent meat ever to pass their lips. Chang decided to make pork butt, a cut of meat too often ignored in upscale American restaurants, the star of his new place by creating a dish so decadent that you have to order it ahead of time and with a group of several friends. The bo ssam meal($165) serves eight to ten people and includes a whole, slow-roasted pork butt, a dozen oysters, and a variety of different banchan (Korean side dishes). Chang rubs the pork butt with brown sugar and salt, and slow-roasts it for eight hours until it is so tender that it’s falling apart. I have not tried the pork butt, but I have already started scheming to try and find a way to round up 8 shameless meat eaters amongst my friends and acquaintances, or better yet try to make it at home.

In the past, I’ve made several trips to Momofuku noodle bar, which made me even more smitten with Chang and his cooking. I thought that his plate of seasonal pickles were a revelation (though I am an admitted pickle-lover)--a veritable montage of colors - crisp tart lychees, water chestnuts, cantaloupe, celery, onion, celery root, golden beets, and my beloved kimchi.

Note for the Reader:
Yes, it is true—I absolutely adore kimchi. In all its stinky, garlicky
glory. I have been known to stash it in a Tupperware container and bring it to work, much to the chagrin of my fellow subway riders. I love it just with rice, in tofu stews (jigaes), wrapped in roasted seaweed, and I particularly fancy some with ramen and udon soups. I particularly love kkakdugi (깍두기) which is a kimchi made with cubed radishes, and oh-ee so-bae-gi (오이소배기) which is a stuffed cucumber kimchi. I actually used to day-dream about how to make my own and then soon moved on to wanting my own kimchi refrigerator. I think I have revealed too much, but suffice to say, I am pretty much a goner when it comes to anything with kimchi. However, in Chang’s seasonal pickle plate I thought the pickles outshined their traditional Korean counterpart. His pickles are the perfect balance of sweet and sour, which creates a delightful synergy amongst the motley assortment of fruits and vegetables on the plate.

I am also a fan of the steamed pork buns, which I thought were unique and delightful, if not at all traditional. The pork belly just melts in your mouth and makes me rethink my old habit of always crisping that cut of meat . Chang is not at all apologetic about his self-professed "overpriced, overrated", vegetarian unfriendly food, which of course is part of his charm.

I sadly now have to admit that I was under-whelmed by my first and only experience at Ssam Bar. The space at Ssam Bar is much roomier and seems like it would be less of a wait on a busy night than Momofuku with its tiny, rib squeezing space. I‘m someone who likes to get to busy restaurants on the early side so that I can watch as they come to life, and one of the added benefits is receiving the full attention of the wait staff. Our server was fun, irreverent about most everything except the food, and extremely helpful when we asked for his recommendations. We chose the poached Vietnamese shrimp in a cantaloupe puree with cucumbers, fresh mint and coriander. It turns out that I liked the dish on paper much better, as the flavors just did not come together in the clean "pop" that I had envisioned. Although, it did make me want to attempt poaching shrimp -- the texture was incredibly velvety and rich, but the puree itself was one note and just overshadowed the delicacy of the shrimp. We also had the inevitable seasonal pickles to satisfy my love of all things soaked in vinegar. It was a similar assortment of vegetables and fruits with the addition of jicama, carrots, red beets, and watermelon. While I really enjoyed them, they did not have the balance of the sweet and sour that I remembered from having them at Momofuku.

We moved on to the original momofuku ssam and the marinated hangar steak ssam. I thought the momofuku ssam was very tasty, but considering that it is absolutely stuffed with some of my favorite things in the world (tender pork, kimchi, edamame, and pickled shittakes), I did not swoon over it the way I had anticipated. The pork was actually delicious, the kimchi puree was fresh, garlicy, and spicy, the wrap itself was moist and the portions were generous. All the crucial elements were definitely there, but somehow the combination of flavors did not wow me. I did enjoy it, just not as much as I had thought I would. I think I had heard from so many foodies about how incredible this place was, so that it had almost taken on a mythical aura. I am the exact same way with hyped movies—no matter how much I may enjoy them without knowing a thing about them, my elevated expectations always leave me slightly disappointed.

The marinated hangar steak ssam was cooked perfectly medium rare, but was incredibly salty. As the star of the plate, I wish the kitchen had been less heavy handed in their seasoning—it was almost impossible to enjoy the dish. This was almost unfathomable—I am mad for Korean marinated beef and love the tradition of wrapping it in crisp lettuce leaves with the soybean paste. I did like the scallion salad that accompanied the dish, and think I will add that to the Korean grilled beef I make at home. In the future, I think I might be better off ordering less traditional Korean dishes at Chang’s restaurants, as I have been happier with his fusion items like the brussel sprouts with kimchi or shrimp and grits from Momofuku.

Ssam Bar was unlikely to live up to my expectations on a first visit, so there will surely be others, and since there were only two of us, we were not able to try as many things as I would have wanted. For the time being, I will return to Momofuku, and wait until people stop raving about Ssam bar - perhaps I’ll be able to appreciate it more then.


Attia said...

Thanks for the review! I was going to take my brother and his girlfriend to Ssam when they come to visit next month, but I think I'll stick with Momofuku and start out with a plate of those pickles...

blair said...

David Chang, of DC if I can claim hometown pride, was just recently featured in Gourmet magazine with an awesome picture of him holding a pork belly over his shoulder! The execution may have faltered but I appreciate anyone who embraces the pig so vehemently!

Juree said...

I think that Chang is terrific-- I was just hoping for more spot-on flavor combos at Ssam bar-- that being said, I am excited to try it again and would love to hear some suggestions from people who have some favorite Ssam dishes.

Kate F. said...

Oh man, those pork belly steamed buns at Momofuku..... I went on my birthday over the summer and DAMN. Those rock.

Wendy said...

I second what you say about kimchi! After an addiction of a few weeks (adding it to my daily noodle soup) my colleagues first wanted to know what that smell was and then begged me to never bring it to the office again. Sigh!

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