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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)

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