Note: Click here for a more recent review of Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
Is it possible to be hotter than Momofuku Ssäm Bar? Well, I suppose you could be The Waverley Inn. Aside from that, Momofuku Ssäm Bar is about as hot as it gets, with practically monthly mentions in New York magazine, the Times, and elsewhere.
The restaurant, an offshoot of the successful Momofuku Noodle Bar, also in the East Village, is named for ssäm—basically a Korean burrito. The chef, David Chang, can be commended for his guts in choosing a name that sounds like moth-er fuck-you, although it means “Lucky Peach.” He can also be commended for having one hell of a publicist.
The concept has changed almost monthly since Momofuku Ssäm Bar opened last summer. At first, it was just a lunch burrito bar. When Dana Bowen reviewed it in the Times, late-night dinner service had only just started, and then, only after 10:30 p.m. The starting time for dinner kept moving earlier, and now it is served at the times normal people eat. Like 7:30, which is when my friend and I showed up yesterday, when there was about a 5-10 minute wait for seats at the bar.
The menu is in a bunch of categories; you are encourated to order tapas-style, and share. The server recommended that we choose six items, and as usually the case with such recommendations, it was probably one too many.
Seasonal Pickles ($9) had a lively taste, with the ones pictured on the left packing quite a bit of heat.
Wellfleet Oysters ($15 for half-a-dozen) were cool and fresh.
Three contrasting hams are offered on the menu. We had the Edwards’ Wigwam Smoked Ham ($10) from Surrey, Virginia. This was fresh and light to the taste, but we needed more than the two slices of bread that came with it.
The restaurant claims that they serve “no vegetarian-friendly items.” This isn’t strictly true, as Brussels Sprouts ($11) and a number of other dishes (like the pickles) demonstrate. Of course, perhaps there’s more to this dish than meats the eye. It was so crisp and smokey that it could almost have been bacon. [See update below.]
Finally we got to one of the dishes Momofuku Ssäm Bar is named for: Hanger Steak Ssäm ($19). To eat, you place a piece of steak on a leaf of lettuce, add rice and sauce, and wrap the whole thing up like a soft taco. It’s a little unwieldy, but a pleasure.
I was full by this point, and barely tasted Seafood Stew ($29). My friend loved it though, calling it a spicy bouillabaisse. A pair of small-tined forks would have been helpful, for prying the meat out of the mussels.
There is much more to explore at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. If you can muster a crowd, consider ordering the whole pork butt ($180), which is slow-braised all day. We saw one at an adjoining table, and our mouths were watering. The party of seven couldn’t finish it.
Although it is crowded and loud, service is friendly and fun. The servers are well informed about the menu, and patient about explaining it. The kitchen doesn’t really know how to pace the food. Like most tapas-style restaurants, plates come out when the kitchen is ready, not when you want them. Our first four courses appeared rather quickly, but there was a noticeably long wait for the fifth and sixth. In the meantime, we enjoyed a bottle of sparkling shiraz ($35), an oddity I don’t remember seeing anywhere else.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 2nd Avenue at 13th Street, East Village)
Update #1: My statement about the restaurant’s purported absence of vegetarian choices sparked a few comments. Yes, I am aware that a vegetable dish may have come into contact with an animal-based product during its preparation. Similar items appear on menus all over town. Unless the restaurant has told you so (and most don’t), one can never assume a complete absence of animal derivatives. I therefore thought that the unusual comment on Momofuku’s menu was worthy of a mention.
“Vegetarian” is an umbrella term that covers many different approaches to eating. (See Wikipedia.) Many people who call themselves vegetarians would eat a number of items on Momofuku’s menu. The strictest vegetarians might not, but they would probably find themselves frustrated at many restaurants in New York. I have no reason to think that Momofuku is in a category by itself.
One commenter seemed to think that this was “Bad, incomplete reporting” on my part. I am not writing Consumer Reports, just a journal of my impressions of restaurants I’ve visited. I don’t claim to be exhaustive, as I think would be obvious to just about anyone. And I cannot imagine that any strict vegetarian would be depending on me (a confirmed carnivore) as her source for restaurant recommendations.
Update #2: After posting this entry, one commenter wondered how my 1½-star rating could be reconciled with my apparent enthusiasm for the restaurant. I’ve responded to that in a separate post. After thinking about it, I did update the food rating from 1½ stars to two, but the overall rating remains at 1½ stars.