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Jul 11, 2009 06:42 PM

Momofuku Ssam last night (very long review)

OK, so I finally made it to Momofuku Ssam last night after literally wanting to go for over a year. I had read several reviews, looked at pics, and perused many menus over that time. So, you could imagine how excited I was about finally going. From the second I woke up I couldn’t wait to just get out of work and be one my way to the Momofuku feast that awaited me. I was staring at the clock all day trying to rush the hours and get out of work. Once it was time, I flew out of my office and into the subway to embark on my journey. I was psyched about what I figured would be an ethereal experience. So was it ethereal? Hardly. Almost? Nope. Disappointing? That would be the most accurate way to describe it for me unfortunately.

So why didn’t it live up to my expectations? Well, we all know that the piece de resistance and signature dish at Ssam is well- the Bo Ssam… that beautiful 7 pound bone-in pork butt that all lovers of meat would love to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, you need 6-10 people to take on this behemoth and knowing that I was dining solo this was not a viable option. So, I went for the next best thing, the $140 ribeye.. of course. Afterall I am steakrules, steak is my passion, my love, my death bed meal (yes PL porterhouse please). So I just HAD to try to pan roasted ribeye from Four story farms. Many restaurants in the city offer it, however I was bent on trying Momofuku’s version. Now onto what happened.

After arriving at 5pm I was seated right away at the bar as the place was empty (it opens at 5 for dinner). As a solo diner you are basically forced to sit at the bar since there is very limited table seating reserved for group parties. My first thought was wow this place is small- and all of the seats are backless stools. If you are into décor this place doesn’t have much of it. For me, this isn’t a big deal I just want great food. One cool thing though is that they have an open kitchen so anywhere you sit you can see the kitchen cooking your meal.
OK so now I am at the bar and a young lady takes my order. I knew what I wanted but I perused the menu just to see if there was anything different from what was on their website, which there wasn’t. So I preceded to go with the pork buns to start, ribeye bloody rare with a charred crust, and a side of snap peas with egg and xo sauce. I knew coming in that Momofuku slices the ribeye off the bone and actually prefer to have my steak served whole but whatever. I for one LOVE to have a nice chunk of meat still attached to the bone so I can pick it up and gnaw the meaty goodness! Yes I know I am a pig when it comes to steak but hey I am not ashamed to admit. So I told this to the waitress and she said “ We will call you over when its done and you can instruct the kitchen how you’d like it cut”. I thought this was a great gesture! So when the steak was finished they did, however as I made my way up to the open kitchen the cook already had the knife in hand and in one quick motion of the knife sliced the whole steak off the bone! He left barely any meat on it… and I felt my heart kinda sink into my stomach. Oh well I thought I am sure it will still be good.
So I went back to my table where I was presented the steak, snap peas, and a side of fingerling potatoes with zucchini topped with arugla in a buttermilk ranch type dressing (this comes “complimentary” with the ribeye). The ribeye was presented very nicely in about 14 slices with the bone beside it and it was topped with a great shallot confit, which basically tasted like roasted garlic. I actually loved this shallot confit and wished they gave me more. It is also served with sea salt and a bowl of the pan juices of rendered fat from the steak which I thought was really cool since not many places do that. Now how was it?

Pork buns are supposed to be a must try here but honestly I didn’t think they were anything special. You get two buns with 2 pieces of pork in each for $9. 2 pieces were nice and juicy but two were dry. I have had much better pork belly at Craft, and bacon at Peter Luger and Old Homestead.

Ribeye- As stated before, my favorite part of a steak is the meat right on the bone. And yes the darn cook left me absolutely nothing but fat on the bone. Barely any meat on it but there were a few tasty crispy bits of fat on it. So I looked for the rarest piece and took my first slice, sprinkled a little sea salt, some shallot confit, and spooned some of the pan juices over it. First thought- this is a pretty good piece of meat. However, the steak was overcooked for me. It was more medium to medium rare than my requested rare. The crust was very good on the outside, but I was bummed about my internal temp not being correct. Also, about 1/3 of the steak was FAT! Yes, I like some fat with my steak, that’s the flavor, marbelization is key I know. But when 1/3 of a steak this expensive is uneatable fat that is ridiculous. This was the most expensive steak I had ever ordered. Comparable steaks I have had in this price range were the $120 porterhouse at Craft (which I shared with my dad), and the 64 ounce monster double cut ribeye for $110 at Quality Meats. Both were far superior to Momofuku’s ribeye and the QM ribeye is double the portion for $30 less!
Now comes the part that really got me mad! I am a butter FANATIC. I love to have some extra butter with my meal whether its for my steak or to put on my veggies or whatever. So I asked my server if I could have some butter. Around 2 mins later one of the expediters comes over to me and says “Sorry the kitchen refuses to give out sides of butter, they do not like when diners tweak their dishes”. I could not believe what I was hearing. I started dying laughing and I said hey buddy listen I am paying over 200 bucks for this meal when all is said and done and you can’t get me some butter? Again he refused and offered some lame ass apology. He then left and I guess sensing my anger came back and said.. “You know what if you want we can actually give you the bread and butter which comes with sea salt and whipped lardo but it will be $8.” That really put me over the edge! After all that I had already spent this guy was trying to get me to pay 8 bucks for some butter? I laughed in his face, said I didn’t want any bread, and sent him on his way. At this point I was also tempted to say the steak was overcooked, too fatty, and really disappointing, but I am really not one to send my food back- especially not a $140 steak.In any event I continued eating, and made my way through a good amount of the steak. It had a good dry aged minerally tasted that all of us steak lovers crave. I’d say I wound up eating about 18-20 ounces of it. I get into this “steak zone” where I just keep eating an eating. But I really think it was more because subconsciously I was thinking..”This is $140..must..keep..eating”, rather than “Oh my God this is an orgasmic piece of meat”.

In any event I’d say it was good, certainly not great. For this price and my high expectations I was left utterly disappointed. I was expecting at least this one to be in my top 10 steaks but it definitely didn’t make the cut. And the fact that they wouldn’t give me extra butter really pissed me off. If they had given me my butter maybe I would have been more lenient in my review, maybe even lied a little and said it was better than it was, or cooked better than it way, etc. But no I am going to be completely honest. It just didn’t live up to the hype.

Snap peas were good, but nothing great. They could have used more egg and xo sauce. The star really actually was the fingerling potatoes that came with the ribeye. The zucchini and buttermilk dressing were amazing and a great complement to the potatoes.
I was offered dessert however I passed for three reasons 1. I was really full after consuming a huge amount of food …2. Mostly because I wanted to try Momofuku Milk bar (which I did and will review later).. and 3. Because I knew I had already spent about $200 and was totally pissed at the whole butter refusal ordeal.

One other thing will say is the service sucked. Maybe it was cuz I was sitting at the bar but I don’t know. After the food was plopped in front of me I didn’t see my waitress again until it came time for the check. But I think this was more isolated incident, because the people behind me had a great waiter who checked on them several times. I think groups get more attention that solo diners oh well.

So in conclusion, evern though it seems like I am trashing the whole meal, the steak was a quality piece of meat and meal was pretty good. However, the price was totally unjustified. I left here over $200 lighter in my wallet and disappointed. For a great steak stick to a steakhouse where you can get a great steak for $50. No need to spend 140 on a “pretty good” steak. Oh well, you live and learn and I have no regrets- I want to try it and I did so that’s fine.

As if this post wasn’t long enough (I know lol), I will close with this. As I was leaving I saw a table of 10 eating that Bo Ssam! OMG it looked so amazing… this is what I am coming for next time. I will be back to Momofuku to try that Bo Ssam it looked just too good and I KNOW there is no way that can be disappointing. This thing was huge and I was so tempted to ask the people if I could pull some uber juicy pork butt and stuff it into my mouth for a taste. Ahh it looekd so good. So that was it. My Momofuku meal was a bit of a letdown.. the lesson is stick to steakhouses for steak. I advise all of you who want a great meal at Momofuku to avoid the ribeye and go for the Ssam. Better bang for your buck also at around $35-40 pp.

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  1. Thanks, steak, I enjoyed reading this, and am sorry you were not too happy. The reason I have not been back there after one visit is it was OVERPRICED. Very good food, but uncomfortable seating and just not worth what they charge.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rrems

      I agree wholeheartedly on all accounts and thanks for taking the time to read my extremely long review. I just think if you go there the Bo ssam is the go to.

    2. Your reviews are always excellent, steakrules. And this one kept me reading until the last syllable. (Well, I guess "pp" is not exactly a syllable, but whatever...)

      I'm sorry to hear the steak left you disappointed. It kind of underscores my theory that no matter how much praise a restaurant receives, it's best to keep one's expectations in check.

      When I read about the butter situation, steam nearly came out of my ears. What a nerve! It appears Mr. Chang has never heard the old adage, "The customer is always right!" And if he has, he's obviously so full of himself that he figures he can ignore it and, instead, adopt the attitude, "Screw you! It's my way or the highway!"

      We haven't been to Ssam Bar. I've hesitated to do so for a variety of reasons, but I've come around to thinking we should try it once to see what all the hoopla is about. You can be sure, we won't be ordering that steak!

      18 Replies
      1. re: RGR

        First of all, it was my pleasure meeting you at Ssam. I would have liked to talk food with you more as you really seem to know your stuff, especially steak! And had I thought to come over earlier I would have gladly accepted a steak "handout", but I was full from a long day of eating ( I left out the wattleseed ice cream root beer floats from Vosges and more in my review of my day). Thank you for your graciousness and the excellent review.

        After just returning from Chicago and enjoying a $275 pp meal at Alinea, I think I can sum up my thoughts on meal price vs. overall dining experience with the following anecdote:

        From the time we booked Alinea right up until the meal began, my wife wasn't shy in expressing her reservations about spending so much on one meal. And, huge foodie that I am, with the economy the way it is, I felt it too. At the end of our nearly three hour meal she turned to me and said, "It was worth every penny."

        The following day we went to the Maxwell St. Market, sat on mismatched chairs at a wobbly table, and had two tamales from a makeshift steamer for $2. After we cleaned our paper plates I said, "I would have paid a lot more for those tamales."

        For me, that's what it's all about. Whether you pay $2 for tamales, $200 for steak, or $550 for a 15 course tasting menu, you should walk away feeling like it was money well spent. I am truly sorry you did not have that kind of experience at Ssam.

        As for the butter issue, I have been at several restaurants where they charge for butter/lardo/other bread spread. Usually it is because it is not just a pat of supermarket butter. And, of course, this is the case at Ssam as well. I would have just paid them the $8 for an order of bread and butter and used that butter as I saw fit ;o)

        1. re: seal

          Hey seal, same here my man it was a true pleasure and it was unfortunate we did not get a chance to talk more. I must say though I totally agree with you on your theory about price. I for one could not careless about the cost of meal ( as evidenced by the fact that I spent over $200 on myself alone the other night). If the meal justifies the price that is all that matters to me. I totally agree with you... there have been meals where i spend $3 and would have easily shelled out 10 times as much. And then you have your experiences where the opposite is true. It really just comes down to enjoyment vs value.

          I have had many terrific meals at high end restaurants where I spent a fairly good amount of money (EMP, Gotham Bar and Grill, Babbo, Craft, etc.) and didn't mind at all. I have also gone to Del Posto and felt like they robbed me at gunpoint haha. I spent about almost 5 times less at Crispo and enjoyed my meal there 20 times more.

          Usually one would think of the old adage "you get what you pay for" but that is not necessarily always the case

        2. re: RGR

          Whether one likes it or not, Ssam (and I presume the rest of the Chang restaurants) is known for not making substitutions, additions, etc. It probably helps to go in there knowing that. I agree with the OP that the service tends to be a bit scattershot, though always friendly.

          I was there for lunch that day and shared five dishes with friends - two orders of pork buns, one BBQ sandwich, one pork foie gras terrine and the beef tendon (which I had not had before), as well as a carafe of Gruner Veltliner. After spending $40 each, we all came away quite full and happy - in a city where it can be easy to drop $40 on a mediocre meal.

          I've never had the steak - though the raw american wagyu was a favorite last time I went. I don't think I'm one to buy into hype, and having now been three times in the past three weeks (each time going with people who haven't been before), Ssam remains one of my favorite places to go for porky deliciousness.

          BTW - the backless stools are surprisingly comfortable, and there are some tables that have the wall behind them. The music was much louder than I would have liked though.

          Edit - and of course, none of this is meant to diminish the OP's report of his experience of course. Though not one to send food back as a rule, If I had purchased a $140 steak and it wasn't done to my liking, I would definitely have sent it back.

          1. re: MMRuth

            I know that Chang's restaurants as a whole aren't big on substitutions/additions/dealing with vegetarians, but from your visits there have you gotten the impression that they might be accommodating to a person with food allergies? I've been dying to try Momofuku Ssam, but I've been hesitant ever since I first read that they're not the most accommodating to anyone who might want to make any changes to a dish. I think I'm just going to call them and ask, but I was curious to hear other opinions.

            1. re: whitneybee

              Honestly, I doubt they are - though I've not asked. What is the allergy in question?

              Also, I've found it impossible to talk to anyone there on the phone - i.e., when you call you just get a recording. I'll be happy to ask next time I'm there - or if you are in the area, you might want to just stop in and ask.

              1. re: MMRuth

                They never answer any of the phones at any Momofuku restaurant because they have an automated system in place where a recording of your voicemail gets forwarded to a bunch of people's devices/Blackberries/etc. Kind of space age and it weirded me out for a while, too.

                For an allergy, a friend has a deathly allergy to dairy (getting a regular latte instead of a soy one in SF by accident meant a trip to the ER) and the server went back into the kitchen, asked what she could and couldn't have (most dishes were OK), and then were kind enough to make a pork bun out of lettuce as the bun part contains dairy. So it can be done and they were extremely accommodating but I'm sure it helped that her allergen wasn't in every single dish.

                1. re: kathryn

                  Thanks for the info - I figured you would know! Good to know they were accomodating in this sort of circumstance.

                  1. re: kathryn

                    I have Celiac disease, so while it's not technically an allergy, ingesting wheat or gluten (even a small amount) will knock me out for weeks. I'm glad to hear they were accommodating to your friend, but considering that gluten can hide in so many places in so many different dishes (even though it looks like there are things on the menu I could have) I'd feel better speaking to someone first. I may just stop by next time I'm downtown. Thank you!

                2. re: whitneybee


                  A statement on the website on the Ssam Bar faq page says the following:

                  "q: are there menu items for vegetarians (or those with other special diets)?

                  a: all vegetarian items are listed as such on the menu, however, we have few.
                  please alert your server as to any allergies or special dietary needs you may have."


                  Unless it's lie, that says to me that they are willing to make changes in order to accommodate allergies or food restrictions.

                  1. re: RGR

                    They did make a bowl of plain brisket and noodles in broth once for my young daughter when the brisket was on the menu. That one involved just subtractions from the normal dish not additions.

              2. re: RGR

                RGR thanks for the props and I am glad ypu can feel my pain! I guess you are right about the wole theory on expectations- which is why I tend to keep and open mind and make my opinion based upon my own experiences. As far as not trying the ribeye, it is purely your choice. It could have just been an off night or inconsoistent piece of meat, etc, however I just wanted to warn my fellow Hounders before they went in there with great expecations resulting in a huge letdown.

                P.S. I always enjoy reading your posts as well and have taken your advice several times after reading them =). It is wonderful to know that there are those of us who share the same passion for great food.

                1. re: steakrules85

                  For that price, there should be no such thing as an inconsistent piece of meat! My favorite cut is hanger steak, which is on the menu. So, if I had steak there, I'd most likely have that.

                  I'm pleased that my advice has been helpful to you, steakrules. I still get the warm and fuzzies each time you rave about and/or recommend EMP. :-) And now, whenever we go there, I always think of you leaving with a bag filled with duck legs! lol Btw, are you aware that they are now carving the duck tableside? Also, they have added a guinea hen for two to the menu. In a word: spectacular!

                  1. re: RGR

                    Oh wow yeah I loved Eleven Madison Park and definitely have to make it back there soon. They are carving it tableside these days now huh? That's awesome. Do they give you the legs? Or do you still need to request the doggie bag to take home haha?? That guina hea sounds great too, however I am really bent on having hte five course suckling pig tasting next time I go.

                    1. re: steakrules85

                      When were at EMP for dinner two weeks ago, we had originally intended to order the duck since we've not had it in quite a while, plus being eager to experience the tableside carving. However, when we saw the guinea hen on the menu, we changed our minds and decided to have that. Next time, we'll do the duck, and I'll let you know about the legs.

                      As for the pig tasting, oh, yes! You should definitely do it. it's fabulous! Chef Humm at his creative, exquisite best! However, I should warn you not to expect huge portions. We certainly didn't go away hungry, but it's definitely not a bo ssam. ;)

                      1. re: RGR

                        What were the five courses specifically? Do you remember?

                        1. re: steakrules85


                          As annerska indicated, some of the courses now may be different from what we had in April, since Chef Humm is likely to be substituting ingredients more appropriate for the summer season. That said, here is what our five courses were:

                          Tete de Corchon with Cornichons and Baby Radishes
                          Belly - Sous Vide with Garden Peas a la Francais
                          Confit - Rhubarb, Ramps, and Black Pepper Jus
                          Rack - Roasted Asparagus and Oregon Morels
                          Pre-Dessert: "Strawberry-Cheesecake"
                          Dessert: Mint Chocolate Chip "Ice Cream Sandwich" with Araguani Chocolate

                          We added a cheese course. My husband did wine pairings.

                          I've attached a photo of the rack.

                      2. re: steakrules85

                        As I'm on a grad student budget, I don't get to post often -- but love reading the boards and anticipating where I'll go when I do splurge. I was a lucky invitee to my SO's parents' 25th anniversary celebration dinner at EMP and the food (and service) certainly met my expectations from reading RGR's glowing reviews. Our table of 10 was able to select either the spring tasting menu or the suckling pig tasting. I chose the latter and it was amazing, the portions certainly aren't large but I remember it feeling substantial as the meal went on -- maybe because of the richness, or the wine pairings we had. I could probably put away a 32 oz ribeye and left EMP feeling pretty full, especially after the mignardises, some cheeses, and a few Scotches...

                        Unfortunately, I can't help you on the specific courses, and it's been a while -- I think maybe the third or fourth was described as the 'signature' suckling pig dish. Chef Humm did come out toward the end of our meal and asked specifically about the pig tasting, saying that the menu was likely to change. So, steakrules, if and when you go, please report back! I look forward to eating vicariously through your review. :)

                        1. re: theannerska

                          I have been to EMP and it is one of my favorite restaurants. I have written a glowing review and I share RGR's opinion in that it is one of the greatest restaurants around. When I went I did have the suckling pig as an appetizer course and it was so amazing. Looking forward to trying their other renditions... and RGR I must say the rack looks terrific.. you know my feelings toward meat on the bone I simply live for it!

                2. Great review...

                  i've been to M.Ssam twice (both times solo), and while i didn't have any bad experiences, nothing about those visits would make me want to return...i found the staff a bit pretentious and the food rather forgettable and/or pointlessly quirky...i'm still not sure what all the fuss is about...

                  and, if i'd ordered a 140 steak and then they refused me some butter, i think i would have totally lost it...the "tweaking" comment prob would have sent me over the edge...i think it's inexcusable for a restaurant to treat customers this way...

                  1. $9 for two of those pork buns is quite a deal, especially in Manhattan, IMHO. We had a resto open up here in Charlotte NC that sold one pathetic pork bun with two puny strips of pork belly for $9. It was no where close to the same league as Momofuku. I also LOVED the brussel sprouts we had when I was there back in April. Mmmmm....

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: lynnlato

                      I wouldn't have cared if they pork buns were THAT good. But they simply weren't.

                      1. re: steakrules85

                        If things haven't changed the buns are actually better at Noodle.

                        1. re: KTinNYC

                          I thought the same. The belly was juicy goodness at Noodle Bar.

                          But I'll take either bun any day over anything I can find down here. Weird, cuz I'm livin' in pig country for cryin' out loud. :(

                    2. thanks, that was an awesome review. I figure you might have seen this review on SE?


                      totally obnoxious on refusing butter tho; that ain't even an addition/substitution/whatever, it's just asking for butter! and, it's unclear in the end, did you eat the whole thing or maybe take some leftovers?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: bigjeff

                        I indeed took leftovers... it was a pretty big steak supposedly 32 ounces or so. I also did see that review, which made me want to try it in the first place. However, obviously after reading my review you can tell I seriously disagree with Nick Solares.

                        Bit I really want to try Craft's ribeye next. I love Craft and their porterhouse was one of the best steaks I have ever had....