Is it possible to be more hyped than David Chang? Where should we start? In 2007, he was the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year. Both Bon Appétit and GQ named him Chef of the Year. Frank Bruni awarded two stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar, then named it Best New Restaurant of 2007, despite the little detail that it opened in 2006.
On eGullet.com, a crowd of adoring admirers has all-but canonized him. They said that Ssäm Bar was at the vanguard of a “New Paradigm” of “haute cheap” restaurant dining. Discussion board regulars criticised me, not because I disliked Momofuku Ssäm Bar (which I don’t) but because I failed to exhibit the required paroxysm of rapture. In truth, on two previous visits I found the food at Ssäm Bar very good indeed, though the ambiance leaves a lot to be desired.
That’s the backdrop to the very generous offer I received last week from eGullet regular Nathan, to join him for a Bo Ssäm, the one remaining item at Momofuku Ssäm Bar that I was really dying to try.
The Bo Ssäm is a 10-pound Berkshire pork butt (the shoulder, actually), braised for seven hours. Ssäm Bar serves two of them a night. A Bo Ssäm pre-order is the only way to get a reservation—6:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (11:00 on weekends). It requires a big group, which I’m not quite enterprising enough to put together myself, so I was grateful that Nathan did all of the organizing: he’s so fond of the Bo Ssäm that this is the third time he’s ordered it. And he’ll probably do it again.
Prices at Momofuku Ssäm Bar are gradually inching upward, with many items a dollar or two higher than they were last year. The Bo Ssäm, which was $165 just fifteen months ago, is now $200. There are now two tasting menus ($45 and $75). The wine list has expanded a bit, though I don’t find any of the choices particularly impressive, and most bottles are over $50.
Nathan ordered the appetizers, and our party of nine was able to sample a good deal of the Ssäm Bar menu.
Diver Sea Scallops — lychee, yuzu, watercress (left); Seasonal Pickles (right)
We started with Diver Sea Scallops ($16), which I enjoyed, although Ssäm Bar regulars said that an earlier version of the dish was better. Seasonal Pickles ($10) offer plenty of taste contrasts.
Fuji Apple Kimchi — Burgers’ smoked jowl, maple labne, arugula (left); Steamed Pork Buns (right)
Fuji Apple Kimchi ($13) is one of the regulars’ current favorites, and it can’t be denied that the apple and bacon combination works beautifully. Steamed Buns ($10) with juicy pork belly is a dish that can’t miss.
Fried Brussels Sprouts — chilies, mint, fish sauce (left); Spicy Tripe Salad — poached egg, frisee (right)
I remembered the Fried Brussels Sprouts ($12) from my first visit. They’re terrific, so it’s no surprise they’ve remained on the menu. I was not especially fond of the Spicy Tripe Salad ($15).
Pork Sausage & Rice Cakes — Chinese broccoli, crispy shallots (left); Grilled Veal Sweetbreads (right)
I don’t have a particular recollection of Spicy Pork Sausage & Rice Cakes ($18), but I loved Grilled Veal Sweetbreads ($15)—usually, they’re served fried, breaded or sautéed, but when simply grilled they stand up beautifully on their own.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin — tapioca, whipped tofu, scallions (left); One dozen oysters (right)
The Santa Barbara Sea Urchin ($16) with tapioca and whipped tofu is a much celebrated dish. I certainly respect the creativity that went into it, but I wasn’t all that enamored with it.
At this point, I felt like I’d already had a full meal, and the pièce de résistance (accompanied by a dozen oysters), hadn’t even been served yet.
The Bo Ssäm in all its Glory
The Bo Ssäm could almost be called liquid pork: it is braised to a point of such tenderness that the meat practically collapses at the touch. It comes with leaves of lettuce; you are supposed to put the pork inside, add sauce, wrap it up, and eat it like a burrito—that’s what the “Ssäm” in the restuarant’s name actually means. I tried this once, but from then on I was content to just eat the pork itself. It is so luscious that one can hardly be bothered to interrupt the appointed journey from plate to mouth. This must be one of the top ten dishes in New York.
Cheddar Shortcake — apples, ham cream (left); Hazelnut Torte — parsnip buttercream, grapefruit (right)
Desserts, which could so easily be an afterthought at such a restaurant, were first-rate. I especially liked the Amish Cheddar Shortcake ($9), with an almost wickedly clever “ham cream.” Hazelnut Torte ($9) wasn’t bad either.
With nine certified foodies at the table, it’s no surprise that the State of the Momofuku Empire was a topic of conversation. One of my companions admitted that he had expected to see Momofuku clones springing up; so far, it hasn’t happened. My own view is that Ssäm Bar is sui generis. Impressive as the food may be, it lacks almost every other amenity that a good restaurant should have—a place to hang up your coat, for instance. As prices continue to rise, and Chang is distracted by other projects, I wonder if Ssäm Bar’s charms may start to fade as diners come to grips with its limitations.
There are signs that Chang’s act is starting to wear a little thin. Over on Grub Street, Cutlets suggested that Chang, “earnest and talented as he is…needs to be reassessed.” Over on Eater.com, a contributor complained that the very dish that Momofuku Ssäm Bar was named for—the $10 Momofuku Ssäm—is no longer offered at dinner.
What on earth is Chang up to? Another of my dining companions, a Ssäm Bar regular, conceded that “I’ve never seen him here.” Two weeks ago, Chang announced that “it’s clear some of us need to step aside and let the real talent shine,” naming new chef–partners for his two current East Village restaurants, as well as the still-unopened Momofuku Ko.
You have to wonder if all of the accolades are going to his head. If Thomas Keller—who has more restaurants than Chang—is in the kitchen at The French Laundry on most evenings, then why is Chang “stepping off to work on new restaurant projects” when, less than two years ago, all he had was a noodle bar? As Cutlets notes, “Ko will have to be phenomenal (and, let’s be honest, it very well could be) to shield him from what could be some backlash against the flood of praise bestowed upon the young chef in the past year.”
I don’t think Chang is the certified genius that some people say, but you have to give him credit for the remarkable phenomenon that is Momofuku Ssäm Bar. No one knows where it will go from here, but it certainly won’t be boring.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, East Village)
Ambiance: Burrito Bar