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Apr 16, 2008 07:09 AM

Momofuku Ssam: a review

I’ve read numerous mentions of David Chang and his budding, painfully hip empire in food blogs, Chowhound posts, and, most intriguingly, Frank Bruni’s rave review of this establishment. Between my lukewarm affinity for Korean food and wariness of overly-hyped restaurants, I was considering skipping the entire experience, but curiosity gave in last week.

The setting is minimal, with lots of shiny dark wood. There’s a bar that runs the length of the restaurant and a handful of tables up front, surrounded by backless stools. It’s not the most comfortable way to sit, but once the food starts coming, you don’t even notice it.

Upon first glance at the menu, my brain started twisting itself into a pretzel. The offerings were all over the place: raw bar; banh mi; a whole section of country hams; lunch boxes; chap chae. Thankfully, my friend took the wheel and I sat comfortably (or, semi-comfortably) in the backseat.

We started with a selection from the raw bar: jonah crab claws with yuzu mayonnaise. The crab claws were gorgeous, arranged over crushed ice and circling a glass dish of the mayo. The two items worked well together – the claws were meaty, the mayonnaise was refreshingly light, and the dish was very satisfying. We were off to a good start, although I had no idea what the raw bar had to do with what I thought was the theme of the restaurant.

From the small dishes portion of the menu, we ordered the steamed buns and the bread and butter (yes, that’s listed on the menu. For eight dollars). The steamed buns were a real stand-out and possibly my favorite thing. They were like small, puffy sandwiches of pork belly, hosin sauce, cucumber and scallions. The presentation and taste was very similar to peking duck, except of course with pig. Which, now that I think of it, is the closest thing to a theme at Momofuku Ssam. Pork is one element that is consistent throughout the menu, and every pig-related item we tried was executed perfectly. This establishment is practically an ode to that fatty, meaty, greasy wonder. Sorry, Wilbur. But you’re delicious.

The controversial bread and butter was also a winner. It’s a warm, crusty baguette from Sullivan Street bakery served with sea salt butter from Vermont, and St. Helen’s farm goats butter from the UK. I had never had goat butter before and let me tell you, it’s such a wonderful treat. It’s rich and creamy, yet light enough that you can eat it with a fork. Which is what I started doing after the bread was gone. Thankfully, the waitress came by to clear our plates before I had a heart attack.

We then had an assortment of smoked country ham, sliced paper-thin, from various farms across the US. I had no idea which ham was which, or whether or not each ham was exceptionally good, because I am not a ham connoisseur, but I enjoyed all of them. They had the texture of prosciutto, and were served with a delicious coffee-mustard that tasted like it was whipped- very similar in consistency to the awesome mustard sauce that is served alongside the filet at Buddakan, which I praised in an earlier review.

To round out the experience we had one ssam and one momo lunch box. The ssam was grilled lemongrass pork sausage, which arrived in several thick, rectangular, juicy shapes, accompanied by daikon, shredded carrots, fish sauce, and lettuce leaves to wrap everything in. It was a colorful presentation, and fun to eat.

We finished with the pork bib bim bap lunch box, which came with one side (we went with the kewpie slaw), pickles, and soda (which we opted not to have – we were way too into our bottle of red wine, the name of which I unfortunately can’t remember). I don’t recall much about the bib bim bap because at this point in the meal, I was so full and overwhelmed by all the different flavors and ways of cooking, that I couldn’t really process anything else.

As someone who knows so little about Korean food I didn't feel qualified to comment on a lot of the dishes, and the presence of the seemingly out-of-place ones continued to confuse me. I wasn’t sure what I thought of my experience until a couple of days later, when a friend emailed me and asked if Chang lived up to the hype, and I immediately replied with a "yes!" So there you go - I've jumped on the Momofuku bandwagon.

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  1. The mustard sauce is actually red-eye gravy, made from the drippings of HAM! It's also got a little bit of coffee added to it. Mmm. Thanks for the review! Wilbur sure is tasty.

    1. Great review! I have had the same resistance you describe, but I feel myself gradually being dragged in. I'll be coming from out of town and eating most likely on a Friday night. Is it true that you can't make reservations? How impossible will it be to get a table? Any hints or suggestions?

      6 Replies
      1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

        Reservations are only accepted if you wish to order the Bo Ssam, a giant marinated pork shoulder butt, cooked to the point of falling apart. It feeds up to 10 people.

        Otherwise, walk-in, preferably earlier during dinner service (like 6 or 7pm). For a party of two, the wait won't be too bad (30-45 minutes), especially if you are OK with counter seating.

        1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

          Hi Hungry in the burbs,

          I was the person who originally suggested Momofuku in your other post but you raised your concerns about Korean flavors and such. I am so glad to hear that you are now interested! In fact, the wide variety of flavors and food there will allow something for everyone. This is MUCH better than Fatty Crab so it is not to be missed!

          1. re: kobetobiko

            Yeah, I'm definitely getting more interested. There is so much hype about this place, I feel like there must be something to it. Out of curiosity, what are the prices like? There aren't any on the online menu.

            1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

              It's all over the map simply because you can construct a $50pp meal with a lot of big protein and raw bar items. Or get a lettuce ssam, pickles, and steamed buns, for $25-30pp.

              Recent photographs of the dinner menu:

              1. re: kathryn

                Thanks. Either way, it looks like it's not outrageous for what you get.

                1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

                  If you go before 7pm, you won't have any wait. It's definitely a later spot.

        2. Great review - I'm heading there on Friday for the first time and I'm glad to know that everything is up to snuff! I doubt we'll order the bread and butter, though. I want pork!

          3 Replies
          1. re: biondanonima

            Oh but goat's milk butter is sooo good. This review might actually get me to try the place when I come up. Sounds yummy!

            1. re: KateMW

              I know - I love goat butter - but it can be found pretty easily in stores in NYC. Now, if they were serving camel or yak butter, I'd pay $8 for it!

              1. re: biondanonima

                Yes. I bought the St. Helen's goat butter at Murray's for about $5.

                I also ordered the Benton's ham online after I tasted it at Momofuku. they are now my staples! :D

          2. Right! I love Momofuku, the original, and now Ssam too! I was so happy to be able to take a real upscale foodie (well-off partner) to Ssam and impress him with my restaurant pick. I don't think of it as Korean at all though. To me, I love it because I feel it transcends Asian, French, locavore, etc... categories. It seems to just strive to do the very best for the ingredients involved in each dish. For instance, the steamed buns with pork belly seem to me a play on Chinese Peking Duck (which is sometimes served in that kind of puffy sweet dough instead of a pancake) - but with a surprise. Instead of duck, the filling is intense, rich pork belly! Yum!