I live two doors down from the now infamous Momofuku Ssam. When they first opened, I dropped in and had the steamed pork buns. Compared to the pork filling that comes inside my 99cent bun from a place on 14th ... the meat was wonderful. But overall (esp. given the price) I wasn't sold ... bun a bit soggy and kewpie slaw overly gooey. My love for steamed buns (and a nice review of the place) led me to try again with the chicken. Again, meat was nice and moist and with good flavor but would rather walk to Chinatown for some buns.
Fast forward a couple months and a couple excellent reviews and some major changes to service routines and I can't get home without pushing through a crowd waiting to get in the place (which is very good news for the little Thai place nearby that was struggling for so long but finally now seems to have some customers).
The question ... is it really worth braving the crowd and giving the place a third try? And if so, clearly steamed buns are not the way to go. What would you get (I am not shy about trying new things)?
For my overpayment, I'd rather get the pork buns from the original Momofuku. I feel that the pork belly in the Ssam buns is a bit too tough plus I don't think that the slaw adds much. On the off chance that you haven't tried the former above, walk a few blocks and see for yourself.
If you are going only for the pork buns, then I will say no. But Ssam bar is everything but the pork buns and the ssams. Their best dishes are the offal, the vegetables, and the small plates. The Brenton ham is also delicious. After sampling everything they have on the menu (other than the whole butt, which I still couldn't find enough people to share with me...) I will say the ssam and the pork buns are the least impressive among the dishes. Go for the veal head terrine, the banh mi, the hamachi, the brussel sprouts. These are the things that worth your third (and many more) visit(s).
Agreed! The pork buns at the original momofuku are far better than the ones at Ssam. Skip 'em at Ssam: the over-kewpied slaw performs no favors on the Ssam version. But the brussels sprouts at Ssam are phenomenal, the apple salad is smoky and refreshing all at once, the coffeed redeye gravy that comes with the sliced hams is absurdly good. Really well worth it to go late at night and order adventurously from all over the menu.
I haven't ordered them in a while, but I don't remember slaw on the pork buns at Ssam Bar. Is this during the lunch menu or the dinner menu?
I've had the pork buns at night a few times and didn't feel a significant difference between Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar's versions.
Things I currently love at Ssam Bar:
- Brussels Sprouts which are light and fried but hearty, with wonderful flavors of mint and chilis, and probably fried in bacon. Even people who don't like vegetables, they like this dish. The smell is intoxicating and you can always tell when someone else has ordered them nearby -- heads turn, and people ask, "What is that? I want it too."
- Country hams with red eye gravy. Cut thin, and beautifully smoky flavor. My boyfriend is of the mind that you should drape the slices over your tongue and let it melt. I like to drape it over the toasted Sullivan St. Bakery bread, with gracefully dab on the gravy. The coffee flavor really cuts into the dry aged ham flavor very well -- an awesome but unexpected paring. And you know it's good when the slicer is employing the "one for you, one for me" technique.
- Apple salad with bacon. Crisp apple slices, tossed with lychee gelee, luscious bits of bacon, and spicy peanuts. I love this dish. You can't go wrong with fresh apples and fatty bacon, with little bits of lychee pulp. Sure it looks weird, but it tastes amazing.
- Banh mi. Delicious! Unconventional. On beautiful bread, with veal head terrine, ham, their house-pickled veggies. It looks small, but it's packed to the gills.
- Asparagus with poached egg. This is fairly new on the menu, seeing as it's spring and all but I really enjoy the combination of the salty miso butter, sweet asparagus, and thick but runny egg yolk.
- Diver Sea Scallops with pineapple, scallion oil, and dashi. It's sweet and refreshing and light.
I thought Ssam was very over-rated but I was coming in with some expectations. I'm korean myself and most of the menu items don't even remotely come from korean cuisine. I'm sorry but Korean Ssam's are not made with flour tortillas which they try to call "pancakes". However, unlike the others I did love the pork buns. The dishes ordered at our table were ok. One had the short-rib stew which was mildly like a traditional korean dish with some interesting nuances. I thought that was nicely done. I had the sea bass - I don't know what others who ordered fish thought but I was completely shocked at how small my fish portion was. It was HALF of a deck of a cards. I'm sorry but I think I should get a little more than that as a dinner entree. Other than that I thought the service was good. And wine list was very small but we loved the Riesling and ended up getting a bottle. I probably wouldn't go back here again.
None of the dishes should be considered entree-sized portions, nor should any be considered authentically Korean. A lot of the confusion stems from the evolution the restaurant has undergone since its opening. It went from a cheap burrito outpost to haute playground with a few stops in-between, and along the way got called a lot of things it no longer is, including "cheap", "Korean", and "accessible."
I did go (both times) when they were still in the "cheap burrito" phase. Someone behind a counter - rather sloppily - gave my steamed buns a ladel of meat and the slaw (at this time lunch and dinner were the same). I should give it a third try. The trendy look of the crowd has kept me at bay (our block is a pretty simple EV one other wise) but I love brussel sprouts and these sound pretty worth the wait.
I don't know how Ssam got 2 stars... then again, Frank Bruni's dart board tactics might explain it. When I went there (a month or two before the review), I was completely disappointed. I know there's a lot of buzz about the pickled dish, but the one I received was horrid. Pickled celery?! It had the color of... well, pickled celery. Dull, placid, and limp... accompanied by pickled carrot sticks, mushrooms, and a handful of other low cost vegetable items... the kimchi was okay, but not good enough to make up for the expensive dish (value-wise). Had the "crispy" pork jowls which tasted like burnt bacon. And our main dish... I don't even remember the entree... but I remember I wasn't satisfied. In the end, my wife and I left the restaurant feeling ripped off. Imagine my surprise when I saw the 2 star review in the NYTimes.
My wife's friend knows the chef and frequents the ssam bar every so often, but even he admits it isn't that great. My advice is: stay away. There's better places to spend that much money and get more, better food.
The kewpie mayo is on the buns served before six. After six, it's the same as the pork bun at noodle bar.
I think Ssam Bar is worth the wait and the crowd. I've tried about 90% of the menu (several times) and I recommend everything. That is the amazing thing about this place - before Ssam Bar (and Noodle Bar) I had never been to a restaurant where I crave such a huge percentage of the menu.
Here are some of the dishes that I think about when I'm not at Ssam Bar: the chawan mushi, banh mi, brussel sprouts (in the fall, cauliflower is prepared in a similar fashion), green asparagus (they have white asparagus on the menu too - I like that one also, but I like the green asparagus more because of the egg. I'd say, if you get the chawan mushi and you don't want an egg overload, then go for the white asparagus. Otherwise go for the green asparagus), sea urchin, oysters, hamachi, pork claypot, rice cakes in a bolognese style sauce with collard greens, hangar steak ssam, mushroom salad, apple salad with lychee-bacon-peanuts, apple salad with pork jowl. Of course, the pork belly buns are really good.
If you go with people, the rice cakes, hamachi, hangar steak ssam, brussel sprouts and ham dishes are good items to share. The chawan mushi is small and can be difficult for sharing. The sea urchin is also hard to share. Divying up the sea urchin may make it difficult to fully appreciate the dish.
I hope you go. Let us know what you ordered and how you liked it :)