There are many reasons why you’d go to Momofuku Ssäm. You might be looking for somewhere to sip a seven spice sour, or a seasonal pickle brine martini. But really, if you’ve made it to David Chang’s flagship – you’ve probably come for the pork buns.
It’s why The Hungry One and I made our way there on a New York summer’s day that was as sticky as the residue from a foam party. If you like Peking duck, you’ll like the pork buns. If you like pork belly, you’ll like the pork buns. If you like meat and squish, you’ll like the pork buns.
They’re an open yawn of dough that sits somewhere between the marshmallow compliancy of a yum cha steamed pork bun and ‘Wonder White’ sandwich loaf. In the crevice are slices of fatty pork belly, scallions and a lick of hoisin. All that’s left is to add a squirt of chilli and try not to let too much trickle down your chin while you eat them.
Momofuku Ssäm is an ode to clean lines, wooden walls and floors. It’s like an Ikea Billy Bookshelf has bred. There are no reservations at lunch or dinner, bar for groups that have organised in advance to order the rotisserie duck, or ‘bo ssäm’- a shoulder of pork, oysters, sauces and bib lettuce.
Arriving early for lunch is one way to guarantee a table. The crowd at Ssäm is a mix of local hipsters and tourists. Since hipsters don’t often eat early, at noon there’s plenty of room for people like us to mosey through a three course Prix Fixe lunch ($US 25).
There’s the option of a cocktail to start ($8). The combination of sake and homemade lemonade is as refreshing as a dunk in a backyard pool . Then it’s the buns for my ever-hungry spouse and a plate of pickles for me. The pickles are startlingly large. It’s a wide plate of kimchi, pickled cauliflower, fennel, cucumber, mushrooms, carrot and some cheerful waning moons of rhubarb.
Not all of the food we had at Ssäm is cheerful. Some is straight up aggressive. David Chang has said it’s no coincidence that Momofuku sounds a little like ‘motherfucker’ (Momofuku, 2009). And some of what we ate was ‘in your face’, particularly when it came to seasoning, portion size and spice. Now, my spouse can eat more chilli, salt and pork than anyone I’ve encountered, yet he was stopped in his tracks by the rice cakes with pork sausage, Chinese broccoli and crispy shallots.
In amongst the tumble of rice noodles, squat and fried like crispy gnocchi, were whole chillies. What gilds it together is a slick of fat, courtesy of the pork sausage. The Hungry One then turned to the drinks list for relief from the fat and spice, taking respite in an OB beer from Korea, then a Mexican Coke (sweeter and less acidic, Mexican coke uses cane sugar rather than corn syrup). Still, he couldn’t finish the plate. “I’m sorry” he said with embarrassment to the watier. “This never happens.” I nodded. He’s right.
Ssäm Bar, like the other Momofukus, is confident in its points of difference to other restaurants. The atmosphere is casual and the staff are friendly. The soundtrack helps to dictate the mood, skipping from Bob Dylan to The Clash; all at a volume suitable for someone hard of hearing.
And while the spice and funk pulls the restaurant in one direction, its commitment to artisanal American producers means it’s not hard to draw a tangent between here and the spirit of St John, or Chez Panisse. But if you want a reminder of why this is a restaurant with serious game, dig into the desserts. My blueberry sorbet came with splodges of labne, a crunch of meringue and pickled slices of carrot. It’s a like an Eton mess on magic mushrooms.
For The Hungry One it was a pie, which made good on the advertised promise of sweetcorn. The vegetables are twirled into a buttercup yellow filing, while the crust is pimped up by pretzel shards.
To me, the guts of a great meal isn’t about loving every course. It’s about the one or two which make you cock your head and smile. Which make you look at familiar ingredients in a new way. I came for the pork buns, but it was the fresh produce I can’t forget. And after tasting that rhubarb pickle and corn pie, my kitchen is going to be a very different place. Fruits and vegetables, consider yourselves warned.
You’ll like Momofuku Ssäm if: You’re sick of everyone talking about the pork buns and want to try them for yourself. You don’t mind loud music while you eat. You like inventive cocktails. You respect quality produce and don’t mind paying a little more to make sure that the producers sourced it with dignity. You like desserts which push the boat out a little.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar, 207 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003, USA. Tel: +1 (212) 254 3500. Website.