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Monday, November 23, 2009

Best of NY Part II: Momofuku Ssam Bar

Out of all the eateries listed on my New York list, there was only one "must" -- the beyond-hyped Momofuku Ssam Bar. It was a production to book a table for bossam, but it was worth a try. I liked the braised pork a lot as well as his version of the Korean bossam, complete with super fresh oysters, decent kimchi and other less traditional condiments like bibb lettuce (instead of red leaf -- perilla leaves would have been a nice touch) a gingery scallion topping and a pureed version of the same kimchi. The best part of the pork extravaganza was by far the extremely tender pork that had been braised for hours and hours, and that most importantly, sported a nicely charred and wonderfully caramelized crust that gave it a slight crunch.

It was supposed to feed a party of 6-10 but the eight people around our table weren't able to finish it off, as good as it was. Still, upon the descent of the massive pork plate, the usual onslaught of raves associated with braised pork poured -- "fall off the bone," "succulent," and my personal favorite, "like buttah."

The traditional bossam I adore features steamed pork belly. As much as I love that version, this one was very good. But blow my mind it didn't. Maybe it was because bossam isn't new to me. I think the raves it garners may have something to do with the novelty of this dish as well as his interpretation of it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a hater. I'm heartened that David Chang is so explosively popular (not that what I say will make a dent in his continuing meteoric rise to the top) and hope his success helps to spread the word a bit about Korean food beyond barbecue, bibimbap and soontofu stews.

Here is what I would do differently. I would offer perilla leaves because as you know, those are underused greens that are incredibly fragant and delightful, especially when paired with heavier meats. I would also spice up the kimchi more. Not sure if he makes it in-house, but let's kick it up as those back alley hole-in-the-wall joints would in Korea! No watering down, please. The ssamjang, a salty and spicy paste that accompanies all wraps made from fermented soybean paste and red pepper paste known as kochujang, was also not as punchy as it could have been.

I was very impressed with the oyster selection, however. I'm not the biggest oyster fan, but these were so fresh and meaty I could have slurped them down solo. It almost made it redundant to wrap both the pork and the oyster in one lettuce goodness.

Besides the main attraction that was the pork, I liked our starters but again, not blown away. Naturally, we ordered even more pork. I had to since I had heard so many raves about those famous pork belly buns. I thought they were pretty good, though not fantastic. They definitely melted in your mouth but the buns weren't as pillowy as they could have been and something about the combination of pickled cucumbers and hoisin sauce didn't do it for me.

The duck breast came with lobster mushroom, daikon and orange for sweetness. It was ok but not great.

Smoked octopus with a dollop of creamy guacamole imparted an interesting flavor combination. The smoked octopus was clean-tasting and I love anything charred and smoky. It came with shishito peppers and cantaloupe that gave it a bit of sweetness.

I had to eat these starters sparingly to save myself for the star pork but next time, I'd like to try other dishes at Ssam Bar as well as check out his other restaurant that only offers tasting menus, Ko.

For dessert, we headed to Momofuku Milk Bar next door but were utterly underwhelmed with the samplings of funky ice-cream flavors like stuffing and cereal, not to mention the cornbread and cookie selection offered.

Skip dessert and take the leftover pork (and bones for broth) home and make carnitas tacos out of them! Definitely worth trying at least once.

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Ave. (at 13th)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-3500
(takes online reservations only)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Best of NY Part I: Porterhouse, Burgers & Pastrami

I've never had so many meals in a day and consumed so much meat within such a short period of time as I have during a recent New York City trip. Back-to-back steakhouses, paella at midnight and pizza at 2 a.m., although not all in one day.

I mostly ventured to new places this time around, except for my all-time favorite pastrami joint that's filled with equal numbers of tourists and locals during its bustling lunch hour, Katz's Delicatessen. But more about that later.

First I want to come out and say that the best meal I had -- and I qualify -- during this trip was the perfectly cooked, bloody pieces of sirloin and filet mignon with the delightfully charred edges at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn.

It wasn't Momofuku's pork butt extravaganza braised for 10 hours-plus, or the piping bowl of ramen at Ippudo that everyone raved about. This signature bone-in porterhouse (for two supposedly but really for four) came sizzling on a plate that was so hot our server said we could cook the meat some more on the side of the plate if it was too rare for us. It wasn't. I'm not even a huge fan of steakhouses in general, always saying grumpily that a steak is a steak and I could cook steak on a home grill with better results. Have I been proven wrong. This meat was ridiculously tender, juicy -- yes, all the cliches stuck. The sirloin had a bit more fat so tasted a bit juicier than the leaner filet mignon. But the difference was very subtle and didn't deter from the sublime experience.
I could actually taste the meat -- and couldn't stop despite the fact that it was lunch time and we also ordered a burger to share, as if we didn't already have enough meat.

You know I'm a burger snob. I have very high standards for my burger and at every bite, I deconstruct and analyze before devouring a good one or dismissing a mediocre one. This burger was on the rare side, rather than medium rare, but was definitely above average. Still, the bun was on the dense and dry side for me and the patty was not as juicy as it could have been.

Speaking of burgers, I had three different burgers during this trip. All hyped and all good. I'll get into my favorite burger on this NY trip in a bit, but this one wasn't it. It was a decent burger but it wasn't as good as Houston's in LA (I know. Broken record). The best burger I had was from Minetta Tavern. By some tight scheduling that was at times hard to stomach, we landed a table at this hot spot that is a recently converted old-school steakhouse nearly as old as Peter Luger. I had to try restaurateur Keith McNally's latest project since I love his other joints like Balthazar, Pastis and Dr. Schiller's Liquor Bar so much. This burger wasn't the infamous $26 Black Label burger that has prime dry-aged beef but the relatively quotidian Minetta burger (still not chump change at $16) was good enough. I read that a superstar butcher supplies a patty that has a custom-mix of different beef parts, which was apparent in its great texture and flavor. I didn't love the brioche bun as much -- could have been less dense. The caramelized onions were on the sweet side for me but I liked the melted cheddar cheese topping.

Service, however, left a LOT to be desired at Minetta. Granted it was crowded with a huge line of people waiting, but that's no excuse for curt service. Our female server barely cracked a smile and wasn't helpful or attentive. I lost some respect for McNally, whose other restaurants always had impeccable service (but not as good as The Bazaar -- yes, I couldn't omit mentioning it -- or even Osteria Mozza).

While we're on the subject of sandwiches, can't neglect to mention the always reliably fantastic pastrami on rye at Katz's Delicatessen. I dream about this regularly. Needless to say, it was my first stop. This time around, though, I discovered another thing it does very well. Matzo ball soup! Ok, I don't even like this modified chicken broth with a huge ball of dough floating on it. But wow.

This soup really blew me away. The broth was light, tasted like chicken but not overpowered by it and the dough was not too dense or "doughy" and complemented the delicious broth so perfectly I couldn't help but be a little verklemp.

I'm a new fan of this soup that never sounded appetizing to me. Turns out I just hadn't had good matzo ball soup.

It's also the best way to warm up in cold weather. I heart NY.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 E. Houston Street (at Ludlow Street)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2246

Peter Luger Steakhouse
178 Broadway Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-7400

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 475-3850

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Animal: House of (Delightful) Pork Worship

Back to LA eats. If you read this blog regularly, you probably know by now that I'm adamantly anti-hype. But being a pork lover, I couldn't resist trying Animal, a tiny neighborhood joint a stone's throw away from the venerable Canter's but serving pork every way imaginable. The two chefs were apparently on the Food Network -- which I hardly watch anymore (Talk about losing touch with your viewers. Am I the only foodie who feels like the Food Network has it ALL wrong?) -- as the Two Dudes or some such purportedly catchy moniker.

I loved almost everything I had with my dinner companion. The chicken liver spread on toast (right) topped with a sweet onion compote was creamy and delicious. And I don't even love chicken liver.

But the biggest surprises of the evening were the entrees: 1) The chefs' intepretation of poutine, which, by the way, is Canada's greatest contribution to mankind; 2) the deep fried quail topped over grits and seared pancetta; and drum roll please...3) THE PORK RIBS!!

Let's start with the modified poutine. Poutine is basically a platter of French fries splashed with some beef gravy and sprinkled with fresh cheese curds. I may have to disclose that I've never actually had the real deal. But with pulled oxtail gravy and cheddar on top, it was the ultimate thing one would crave right around 2am after a very late night drinking, dancing or singing... Brilliant.

The deep fried quail was perfectly crunchy on the outside and delectably juicy on the inside. I'm sure the fact that it's a smaller bird than chicken prevents it from drying out. It doesn't hurt that it came with slabs of seared pancetta and some creamy, grainy grits. I could have gobbled that quail in one sitting, but wanted to save myself for the pork ribs and boy was that a wise decision! The meat didn't have any gamey flavor so I could tell it was fresh. Lovely.

The mother of all entrees, however, was the grand finale. When the sprawling row of pork ribs with a dark glistening balsamic vinegar glaze landed imposingly on our table, I wondered if it would be as good as some of the barbecue I've had in Atlanta or Texas. The ribs were the best homage to the pork they seem to hold is such high esteem -- and with good reason.

The flesh was so soft and the seasoning and glaze were not overpowering the meat. It gave the meat a sweet and slightly tangy note but not overly so. This is another dish I could have easily torn apart in one sitting but you gotta leave some for later. The meat wasn't as tender when I reheated it, of course, but it was still delicious.

The succotash-type side it came with was a good counterbalance to the heavy meat (as good as it was). It was a light mix of green beans, zucchini and corn.

I would definitely return to Animal. The menu changes daily and I'd like to try the pork belly with kimchi dish because I'm curious how their take on this Korean favorite is. I'm also interested in the grilled squid dish we actually went to sample but wasn't served the day we went.

435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 782-9225