Thursday, September 03, 2009

Travel Dish: Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Continuing reports of “The Single Guy and The City” as I blog from New York.

For the Love of Pork Buns
207 2nd Ave., New York
East Village
PH: 212.254.3500
Lunch, Mon.–Sun., 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.; dinner, Sun.–Thu., 5 p.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat., 5 p.m.–2 a.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

I read a tweet recently where someone jokingly said that New Yorkers will eat anything if you tell them David Chang cooked it.

The New York chef is the Asian Mario Batali, where anything he touches turns to gold. In 2004, Chef Chang opened something called Momofuku Noodle Bar and it exploded in popularity for its casual vibe and delicious Asian cuisine. Five years later, the award-winning Chang owns three restaurants and one dessert shop (Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Ko and Milk Bar).

Ko, a tiny chef’s restaurant, is notorious for always being booked. So in order to get my first taste of Chang’s visionary cuisine, I decided to check out Momofuku Ssäm Bar. What attracted me to the Ssäm Bar (opened in 2006) was that it offers a prix fixe lunch, which is always a great way when traveling to try a popular restaurant but not have to deal with the dinner crowds.

I wasn’t sure how crowded lunch would be at Momofuku, so I got there soon after it opened and turns out it’s pretty quiet in the East Village. Only one other person beat me to lunch, as the servers were busy stocking the bar and wiping down the warm wood tables and bar.

The prix fixe lunch cost $25 and offers three courses. Each course provides two to three options.

For the first course, the day I went the options were Sichuan Beef Tenderloin, Pickles, or Buns. The buns are actually Chang’s world-famous pork belly buns that became popular at his noodle bar and are served at almost all his properties (including the dessert shop called Milk Bar that’s right next door to Ssäm Bar).

I ordered the pork buns, of course, and two came out. They’re the typical buns used to serve Peking duck, and I’ve seen Charlie Phan of Slanted Door do something similar. But when I bit into the pork belly at Momofuku, it was like butter. I have to say, some pork belly buns I’ve tried in the Bay Area have been a bit chewy, making it difficult to eat. Not Chang’s. The pork belly was so tender, and there was a slight tinge of something pickled in the cucumber slices. The hoisin sauce that’s commonly served with Peking duck buns was also in these pork buns, but it was much milder than the sometimes overly powerful hoisin sauce from the jar.

Even though Chang can’t be at all his restaurants and you can be sure he’s not cooking lunch, it’s a testament to his vision that his various chefs de cuisine can duplicate his popular dish with such consistency. (Tien Ho is the chef de cuisine at Ssäm Bar.) And I’m normally not a fan of fat, but even the generous helping of pork fat in the pork belly slices didn’t taste greasy or slimy. It was just so luscious.

I could have been happy with just the pork buns, but there was an entrée course. The options were spicy rice cakes, grilled branzini (a kind of eel), or braised beef brisket. I got the braised beef brisket and it was served in a noodle bowl with flat rice noodles. The serving size wasn’t as large as you would typically get at a Chinatown noodle shop, or maybe it just seemed smaller because of the big bowl it came in.

The beef noodle dish was topped with pickled bean sprouts. There were five rectangular cakes of the braised beef. They came seared to provide a crispy edge. The beef was very tender and I really felt full after eating just two. They were generous portions even though I felt it would have been nice to have more of the noodles. The broth itself was very pleasing with an intoxicating perfume of flavors that I couldn’t identify but gave this dish more dimension.

The final course was dessert and the two options was an ice cream pie and thai iced tea parfait. I was intrigued by the iced tea parfait and even after the waiter described it to me, in my mind I imagined a glass of iced tea with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it like a root beer float.

Well, it was no way like a float. Instead, the thai iced tea was infused into a parfait that was very similar to a panna cotta. It was served with a scoop of lemon verbena cream and crunchy bits of cereal that for some reason is extremely popular in New York desserts. (Pastry chefs call it “dirt” and have used it to resemble soil. How that’s appetizing, I don’t know.)

I found everything enjoyable, from the smooth and creamy parfait to the lemony cream and crunchy “dirt.” I didn’t really get a strong iced tea flavoring, and it didn’t seem very thai, but it was nice and filling.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar’s $25 prix fixe lunch is a great deal given the quality of the food that’s served, but really the food is so good I don’t think Chang needs to come up with these special lunch menus. I have a feeling people will come no matter what he makes.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (fat never tasted so good)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Travel here too:

Bun Viet (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)


JulieK said...

We are going to try to make the buns from the Momofuku cookbook! I can't wait! Where in the Bay Area do you find Pork Belly buns?

Carolyn Jung said...

I live for those pork buns at Momofuku. Can you bring me back a few? ;)

Single Guy Ben said...

Julie, Slanted Door is where I've had them before.

Carolyn, I don't think they'd survive the plane ride! ;-)

foodhoe said...

ahhh, every single thing in that lunch sounds magnificent! I thought they didn't allow cameras, but obviously they do... now you've got me craving pork belly buns, shame on me.

Unknown said...

I had the pork belly buns and the noodle dish as well. The buns were delicious. It was better than Ippudo. I enjoyed the ramen at Ippudo and I hope you had a chance to eat there as well.

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, I heard they didn't allow photos too, and I was really nervous. I sneaked those photos in, partly because it was early and there were only two servers. So I waited until they were both in the back. But I think they're maybe a little more relaxed about the camera policy at Ssam than at Momofuku Ko.

MC, I sooo wanted to try Ippudo but never got a chance to get there. Next time!