Momofuku Ssam Bar (NYC)

So I finally got to try Momofuku Ssam Bar last time I was in New York.  I was a little turned around trying to find the place but we eventually found the nondescript restaurant.  I’m not sure if nondescript is the right word though since once you’re inside you get a simple yet classy sort of vibe.  A neighborhood gem of sorts…and what a gem it was.  Luckily, having visited this place with two other food lovers (my folks), we were able to sample a good chunk of the menu.  We started with the Santa Barbara Uni with tomato, mustard oil and chawanmushi.

I knew uni had something to do with sea urchin but wasn’t completely sure so I googled it just now.  Apparently it is the actual gonad of the sea urchin (the part that produces the eggs or roe).  Sounds kind of gross doesn’t it.  It’s actually pretty good once you get around the fact that you are eating sea urchin gonads and also getting around the very unusual texture (almost like a flaky paste, like a lighter wasabi in terms of texture).  It had a strong ocean saltiness to it that you would find with raw oysters buy maybe not as salty.  Mixed in with the sweet tomatoes, the tang of the mustard oil and the bed of eggy goodness it was laid on, it made for a very interesting and tasty first dish.  Next, we had the famous steam pork buns with pork belly, hoisin, cucumbers and scallions.

There is a reason Chef Chang is famous for these.  It’s like peking duck on steroids.  The only thing I find off putting about peking duck in general is that there is never enough meat and it’s mostly skin and fat (which don’t get me wrong it’s delicious but I just prefer more actual meat in addition to the fat and crunchy skin).  Here, they have solved this problem by just including the whole pork belly!  Genius!  The bun itself has the perfect texture with the right amount of doughy flavor.  They’ve also managed to add just the right amount of hoisin as not to overpower the flavor of the bun or meat (when I cook I tend to be a little overzealous with the hoisin).  These were perfectly balanced.  These may have ruined me for all pork buns in the future.  The vegetable special they had this evening was the Maitaki mushroom.

So on top of the pieces they cut off off the table size giant mushroom in the back, it also came with duck liver mouse, caviar, pickled radish on top of a black berry…well jam.  I figured that with all that was going on in this dish, even people who don’t like mushrooms would love it.  It was so rich but not heavy.  Smooth flavors ranging from sweet to savory to tart and textures that have you guessing at every bite.  And if you like mushrooms, WOW!  This is one of the best mushrooms I’ve ever had.  Next we tried the Wild Catfish with corn curry, green mango and peanuts

Fish was perfectly cooked to a fall apart flakiness upon hitting your mouth and worked really well with the curried corn.  In all honesty, if they had just put the corn and the fish in the dish it would have been enough.  Adding the mango salad I thought was a bit too much.  It added another layer of flavor and sweetness but I find mango to be a little overpowering and it takes away from the already great flavor of the fish and curry.  Next was the Spicy pork sausage and rice cakes served with Chinese broccoli and sichuan peppercorn.

Now every once in a while I’ll have a dish that completely blows me away.  The type of dish that is so good that I almost fall out of my chair and weird noises start coming out of my mouth (“mmmm, ahhhh, oooohhh, HOLY COW!”).  I can maybe think of five in the past few years that has done this for me.  This was one of those dishes.  First off, the dish has a good amount of heat to it.  It’s not suicide wing hot but enough to give you one or two drops of perspiration forming on your forehead.  The spice blend is also very reminiscent of my favorite instant Korean noodles blend.  I don’t know what they put in it but it is one of the most addictive things I’ve ever eaten.  The pork sausage comes in pretty small ground chunks but are savory and soak up all the flavor of the spices and sauce.  The rice cakes are phenomenal.  I think they must either flash deep fry them or pan fry them because they have a perfect crunchy texture on the outside while still maintaining a warm doughy inside.  You don’t really taste the broccoli but this along with the green onions and fire red sauce/spice blend make the dish visually appealing (like Christmas).  Now I’ve noticed when I talk about food I like I use certain sayings a lot since these are some of the general things I personally love about food (I should really start flipping through a thesaurus to stop sounding redundant).  For example, “complex flavor”, “good amount of kick”, “crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside”, “varying textures”, “well balanced flavors”, “excellent portion size”….ALL OF THESE APPLY TO THIS DISH!  Now this isn’t rich like foie gras but it is super tasty which at the end of the day is what I eat for.  Again, one of the most mind blowing dishes I’ve had.  Next was the BRT bun, crispy pork belly, heirloom tomato and smoked mayo.

By this point in the meal I was craving more pork buns so I thought we would try the other pork bun on the menu.  This one, compared the the peking duck on steroids, was like an Asian pork sandwich on steroids.  How does this differ?  Peking duck has hoisin and scallions while the asian pork sandwich has a smoky mayo and heirloom tomatoes.  Both were similar (since the pork and buns are similar) but the complimenting flavors vary significantly.  The traditional pork buns are sweeter and tangier due to the hoisin while the BRT had a nice smoky flavor with a more subtle sweetness from the tomato.  Both are really culinary jewels so I wouldn’t discriminate.  In fact, just eat both…even if you’re full.  It’s well worth being uncomfortably full.  Next we had the Roasted lamb loin and belly served with bulgar, snap peas and an egg yolk.

The lamb loin was perfectly cooked.  Red, meaty and delicious.  I don’t think I’ve had lamb belly up to this point but much like pork belly, fatty, savory and delicious!  The snap peas were executed perfectly and really had a nice “snap” when you bit into them.  For dessert, we were intrigued by the Sweet potato ice cream with root beer and orange.

Wow this was different!  There is no subtlety about any of the flavors listed in the name.  Sweet potatoes?  Present.  Orange? Present. Root beer? Present!  It’s all very well balanced and you really taste all the flavor simultaneously.  I’ve had orange and root beer mixed before but the sweet potato took some getting used to.  By the last bite I was really enjoying the flavor party in my mouth but at first it was a little awkward.  I guess everyone just had to get better reacquainted when they were in there.

Now I went into this place with high expectations and must say, they were exceeded.  The pork buns are pretty legendary but I had heard so much about them beforehand I got what I was kind of expecting so it was delightful to not be disappointed.  The other dishes were stellar, especially the mushroom dish the sausage and rice cakes dish.  All the other dishes had something special which made the whole meal one of the best I’ve had in years.  Can’t wait for the Toronto incarnation next year.

~ by jlowjlow on November 6, 2011.

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