David Chang, a Korean-American born in Washington DC is the chef and owner of a string of successful restaurants that has local New Yorkers addictively queueing up outside every door and fighting over every online booking. Since missing out on Chang’s visit to the Melbourne food and wine festival last March, I thought – what the heck, let’s fly to New York for 3 days and check out what the hype is all about. While I couldn’t manage to secure a booking at the twelve-seater Momofuku Ko, I had always wanted to try Ssäm Bar, especially when it hit 26th on this year’s San Pellegrino top 50 list. Can a mishmash of Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine really be ranked so highly in the world? Amongst the other competitors on the Top 50, Momofuku Ssäm Bar was both an exception in price (if you’re sharing the Bo Ssäm) and atmosphere. With it’s loud echoing wooden space, long communal tables and counter dining that seats no more than 50, staff with a quick and casual service attitude; you won’t be expect white linen, polished cutlery or a dinner jacket anywhere.
A carnivorous menu that embraced the wonderful, magical animal1 it would make Homer Simpson proud, especially when the term “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items” so explicitly spelt out in writing, this “meathead” restaurant definitely isn’t a place I would bring my mother (nor my Jewish friends) to.
Knowing the amount of pork that would soon arrive on our table, I thought it would only be appropriate to to begin our palate with two seafood dishes from ‘Raw Bar’.
The cured hamachi with edamame, horseradish, pea leaves was delightful, the fish slightly smokey and paired with edamame puree and fried genmai (brown rice) pops for a melange of textures.
The santa barbara uni with whipped tofu, tapioca (just like in bubble tea), and shrimp crackers was a very interesting combination. The whipped tofu was texturally like a soft custard, paired with chewy taioca bubbles and crushed crisps.
A favorite pork dish available across all Momofuku establishment would surely be their steamed buns with melting pork belly, hoisin sauce, finely sliced cucumbers and scallions. The turbo charged gourmet char siu bao proved very popular with the boys, I saw their eyes light up with excitement!
Momofuku’s bo ssäm has to be ordered in advance through their website, where online reservations open at 10am New York time every morning. This meant staying up past midnight Sydney-time two weeks ahead of the reservation date in order to swiftly click my way through (with practice on previous nights) to score a table of 10 and an order of whole roasted pork shoulder. The entire pork butt costs $200, and it’s recommended for serving six to eight people – but with advice from my friend Caroline, having a group of 10 people made the event much less overwhelming (and very cost effective), leaving plenty of space for appetizers and desserts.
Bo Ssäm (Ssäm meaning “wrapped” in Korean) is a traditional Korean dish in which steamed pork is wrapped in a lettuce leaf, accompanied by ssäm jiang (korean bbq sauce), kimchi and ginger scallion sauce.
David Chang uses the highly praised Berkshire pork (also known as Kurobuta in Japan), which is dubbed the “Wagyu of the pork world”. The whole bone-in pork butt is soaked in a brine of brown sugar and salt overnight, then rubbed with more brown sugar, salt and spices and roasted in the oven for over 8 hours.
Served at the table with it’s caramelized honey brown skin and meat so tender it falls apart with a touch of your disposable wooden chopsticks, the rich slow roasted shoulder of pork would defy the most determined of dieters.
A dozen of small delicate raw oysters on the half shell and 3 individual bowls of condiments (ssäm jiang, kimchi and ginger scallion sauce) arrive straight after and our waiter begins to explain the best way to devour our bo ssäm.
The first ssäm should be eaten without sauce – just a few shreds of pork, a raw oyster and a spoonful of rice wrapped in lettuce leaf. Our table of 10 (including 2 very drunk ones) fell completely silent for at least five minutes as we all had our first bite.
After the first ssäm we can start experimenting with the sauces. “Pork, kimchi, oysters..it’s the fucking magic combination.” Chang couldn’t have described it better.
We had enough leftovers for three lucky people who would have been the envy of their colleagues during lunch time the next day.
A very generously stacked chocolate chip cake with passion fruit curd, chocolate crumbs, coffee buttercream was purchased by my dear Deborah to sweeten our night (and send everyone to a serious food coma). This Milk Bar favourite was once available by the slice, but it can only be purchased whole these days. We couldn’t have thought of a better excuse, since we were in such a large group!
I also had the liberty to meet David after our meal, and after a few cocktails I may have gossiped about our local chefs. Oops!
- Amanda Ibrahim, David Chang
All in all, I still thought that 26th in the world was a surprised placement for Momofuku Ssäm Bar, but it is indubitably a must stop when visiting New York City. Chang incorporates the best of Asian flavours into his eclectic menu which can create mass appeal. It may be a little loud and crowded, the wait for a table may be tedious, but if you go there with great company, you wont be disappointed – I wasn’t!
Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Ave., at 13th St. New York, NY 10003
Lunch 11am to 6pm daily. Dinner 6pm to 2am daily.
1The Wonderful Magical animal was referred to in an episode of the Simpsons:
Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.