1/03/2008

Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Take Two

It was pouring. Pouring the horizontally slanting kind of rain, seemingly specific to urban areas, that renders umbrellas useless. Hands Honson and I stood in the glassed in vestibule of a nearby restaurant, arguing about where to eat.

"They don't have soup." He stared at the menu. "I thought you said they had soup."

Earlier, he had made one of the most frustrating requests a food writer can hear, the demand for "something light." What does this mean? Something light Thai? Something light Korean? Next someone will be asking me to recommend an entirely carb-free restaurant. I say: just order appropriately.

But Hands was having none of it. There was no soup. There was a wait of 15 minutes for a seat. (A mere 15 minutes!) What about sushi? The day after a four day Christmas weekend? You've got to be kidding me. Never mind that this menu listed a wide selection of raw fish. For some reason, to Hands, that didn't count as "sushi."

A guy who was leaving picked up on the argument. "Get the hanger steak."

"Listen," I said to Hands. "This place just got named the best new restaurant in 2007 in today's Times. If we don't eat here tonight, right away, we're never going to be able to eat here again."

Hands relented, crankily. Crank, crank, crank, until the first course at Momofuku Ssäm Bar landed. And then, my very own Christmas miracle: as soon as the food touched his lips, he shut up. There was absolutely nothing left to complain about.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar was one of the first restaurants reviewed on this site, back when they were just a burrito joint. Like many others around the city, I was willing to follow those steamed pork buns around the city with religious zeal. On this night, the place was full and buzzing, the food was excellent, and the music was hopping. It was enough to make even a cynic burned out from the holidays suddenly love New York.

The pork buns are still here, though they are joined by a host of new options. We started with the cured hamachi with edamame, horseradish, and pea leaves. Even on the day after Christmas, Momofuku's fish was silky, with a clean, pure taste that wasn't overwhelmed by the relatively mild horseradish spread. All the flavors sparkled, even something as tiny as a pea leaf.

The "bread & butter" was Hands' spartan choice of an appetizer, though what arrived on the table was decadent.

"I think this is the best bread and butter I've ever had in my life."

Hands agreed. The mini (sourdough?) baguette arrived piping hot - perhaps even freshly baked if Momofuku parbakes their bread. Savory goat's butter was rich and tangy, and the sea salt butter contained a superior sea salt like the "Flower of the Ocean" brand that's harvested from northwestern France.

Shockingly, the steamed pork buns have gotten even better with time. I didn't think this was possible. Momofuku's pork belly, now widely imitated, is still the torch bearer for this cut of meat - nowhere else have I encountered it prepared so perfectly. And the hoisin sauce must still be made with crack because of the sudden bliss it induces. Or at least star anise - there's a complicated dance of spices going on in the mix.

Throwing caution to the wind, I ordered raw diver sea scallops from Maine. The chef working behind the bar sliced them thin, then garnished the scallops with tiny, crackly bits of deep fried seaweed sprinkled atop like maritime lardons. Bordering them was an inventive side of pickled cherries, which could open up a new chapter in the salty-sweet trend - sweet and sour.

As advised, we got the hanger steak ssäm, which was basically bulgogi taken up several notches in deliciousness. The choice of hanger steak for this dish seemed perfectly in keeping with Momofuku's style - nothing too fancy, just keeping it real. But when all of the parts are expertly chosen and prepared, the whole adds up to something amazing.

We didn't order the crispy pig's head torchon that has gotten so much press, but for the record, here's what it is. They take a pig's head and braise it with vegetables and herbs, scoop up the pig head guts that float to the surface, make them into a sausage, cook it and slice it. Yummers. I chalked that one up to "next time."

Though David Chang has gotten the lion's share of praise from the press, the culinary invention at Momofuku seems to be very much a group effort. An unnamed pastry chef contributed a fantastic "peanut butter and jelly" dessert that was layers of homemade grape jelly, a gourmet nutter-butter like crispy wafer, and saltine ice cream. And as one person quipped when I naively asked if Chang was in the kitchen now, "He's not f-ing cooking!"

Hilarious, but true. In our celebrity-chef-worshiping culture, you've gotta remember the little guys. They might grow up to be the next David Chang.


Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Avenue
at 13th Street
212-254-3500










1 comments:

Haut Marais said...

Just got back from the Big A - Momofuku is a definite YESS, GO THERE, ABSOLUTELY address !

Loved Peep on Prince as well.
And a great simple japanese restaurant in Dumbo.

Haut Marais