REVIEW #78

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Momofuku Ssäm Bar famously transforms the traditional Korean Bo Ssäm (steamed pork belly with condiments that are wrapped in lettuce) by plopping a whole 8- to 10-pound bone-in slow-cooked Boston pork butt onto your table, along with bibb lettuce, rice, a dozen oysters, kimchi, ssäm sauce (ssämjang, a spicy fermented bean paste) and ginger scallion sauce, all for 6-10 people. “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items,” the menu refreshingly warns. Instead, Momofuku Ssäm Bar serves deeply inventive, earthy fare that draws on Chang’s Asian heritage. “I think … our take on the bo ssäm [is] typical of the way we approach ‘traditional’ dishes: with one foot rooted in tradition and the other foot kicking it forward,” Chang explains in his cookbook, Momofuku. There is probably no better one-sentence encapsulation of the Momofuku philosophy than this.

The restaurant falls somewhere in-between Momofuku Noodle Bar, Chang’s first, delicious ramen restaurant, and Momofuku Ko, one of our top 10 rated restaurants, in terms of ambition. This was not always the case (originally, Chang refused to serve anything but ssäms, a type of Asian burrito), but the cuisine has been refined over time to employ classical technique while traversing the globe for culinary inspiration. Thus, there are fried Brussels sprouts that are tossed with Vietnamese fish sauce; chawan mushi (a Japanese egg custard); squid salad sprinkled with a chat, the Indian street snack; and matsutake dashi with fish balls, sepia and lily bulbs. There are also varieties of artisanal country hams, offal and a raw bar. This is a restaurant that flaunts all conventions and refuses to be cabined by any one culinary tradition.

The legendary steamed pork buns is one of the best dishes, consisting of a white Chinese bun (mantou) with fatty pork belly, hoisin sauce, cucumbers and scallions. And the delicious Bo Ssäm is worth experiencing at least once (though it is doubtful that, having done so, you will only experience it once): it consists of a niman ranch pork shoulder rubbed with brown sugar and kosher salt and slow roasted for 6-8 hours, which is designed to be wrapped in lettuce with rice, oysters and Korean sauces. The sugared crust is “like a shoulder encrusted in pig candy” says Chang. Chang is a magician with pork and, in our experience, this dish is unsurpassed by any other pork dish in NYC. There is also a whole rotisserie duck from crescent farms that is stuffed with duck sausage under the skin and then cooked on a rotisserie that serves 3-6 people.

Like the rest of Chang’s restaurants, Momofuku Ssäm Bar marries serious, eclectic cuisine with a casual, downtown ethos and does not take reservations. The wood-paneled dining room with a 70-stool bar gets loud and wait times can become long. Somewhat implausibly, Momofuku Ssäm Bar has been listed as one of the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" in the annual poll organized by Restaurant magazine from 2009-2012, a lofty 6 spots higher than The French Laundry. It’s not that good. But it is very good indeed and David Chang continues to demonstrate the heights he can attain when his raw talent is left unharnessed and given free reign.

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INFORMATION

East Village
207 Second Ave.
New York (at 13th St.)
(212) 254-3500
Sun-Thu, 11:30am-3:30pm, 5pm-midnight; Fri-Sat, 11:30am-3:30pm, 5pm-1am
    David Chang, Chef
    Matthew "Rudy" Rudofker, Chef de Cuisine
    Heather Machovec, Sous Chef
    Brandon Mcdonald, Sous Chef
    Brett Smith, Sous Chef

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