When I have guests from out-of-town, I always recommend Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Why? Simply put, because the restaurant is freakin’ awesome. Or to be more specific, Momofuku Ssäm makes insanely good well-crafted food that could be served in a four-star restaurant in a casual atmosphere. Unfortunately, friends are not always convinced, especially if they’re Korean. Their mentality is that while they’re in New York, they don’t want Korean food. However, Momofuku Ssäm isn’t a Korean restaurant. It’s New American with Asian influences, Korean being one of the more prominent influences. And even if they’re not Korean, they don’t want to go to Ssäm because they haven’t heard of the restaurant. They rather go to Lombardi’s or Magnolia Bakery (Lombardi’s I like, Magnolia I do not). Well, seems this year things are changing. Ever since Momofuku’s cookbook came out last year, all of sudden the Momofuku restaurants have become New York destinations.
Last month, when Alvin came to visit and said he wanted to go to Ssäm, I was stoked. I love taking people to places I love. It’s a win-win situation, for them and my belly.
I began dinner with the Seven Spice Sour, togarashi infused sake, fresh lime juice, and yuzu. I loved it. It wasn’t spicy, but it was clean, crisp, tangy, and not too sweet. I ordered another as soon as I finished it. Alvin ordered the Celery & Nori, which he said he liked, but wished the nori flavor was stronger.
Shigoku Oysters ($18 for half a dozen) with kimchi purée followed shortly after. Oysters and kimchi is a classic Korean pairing — my favorite type of kimchi is gool kimchi (굴김치, kimchi with oysters) — so this worked nicely. The small plump oysters were fresh and light tasting, and the kimchi purée was mild enough so it didn’t overpower the oysters.
We also ordered Seasonal Pickles ($11) for the side. Selections change daily, but on our visit there was cabbage kimchi, carrots, celery, rhubarb, daikon, and cucumbers. All the pickles were good; the whole carrots were my favorite, and the kimchi my least favorite. It was way too salty. I’m Korean after all, so I’m a bit more picky with kimchi.
When the Hawthorne Valley Buttermilk ($12) — buttermilk with Fuji apple dashi, market herbs, and pine nuts — was brought to the table, it was a bit of a surprise. I was expecting a salad with a buttermilk dressing, so this gorgeous plate garnished with edible flowers was even better. The scoops of buttermilk had a soft delicate mouth feel, similar to flan but even lighter, and the Fushi apple dashi added a subtle sweetness.
The Steamed Buns ($9) which I’ve written about before, were good as usual, although I recall the pork being more tender in the past. Still as always, they were a crowd-pleaser.
The Spicy Honeycomb Tripe ($14), tripe with ginger-scallion, celery, pickled tomatoes, and garnished with black sesame seeds, was a dish of textures; squiggly, squishy, and slightly chewy with a little crunch from the black sesame seeds and celery. The heat wasn’t too strong, but it was definitely more than a tickle if you kept eating it. It wasn’t my favorite dish of the night, but a pleasant addition.
My favorite was the Chili Soft Shell Crab ($21) with asparagus and lemon confit. The crab was crunchy on the outside, fat and juicy on the inside, and the lemon confit was perfectly tart and creamy with a touch of sweetness. I’m not sure where the “chili” part came to play since there was no detectable heat, but it was more than delicious without it.
Alvin’s favorite dish was the Fried Baby Artichokes ($14), with pistachio purée, sunchoke slices, and bottarga (cured fish roe). Fried artichokes are always good, but combined with creamy pistachio purée, crisp sunchoke slices, and salty bottarga that sticks to all the twisted frizzled artichoke bits, it’s incredibly delicious. Our bowl was empty in seconds.
Dinner concluded with cookies, pies, and cereal milk galore next door at Momofuku Milk Bar. We left full and thoroughly pleased with dinner. After that night, the next week involved more fooding at fancier and more expensive restaurants, but Alvin said his favorite meal by far was at Ssäm. For locals, is it better now that tourists know about Ssäm? Lines may get a tad longer, but I have a feeling Ssäm won’t garner the mass appeal of Lombardi’s or Magnolia. People seem to like cupcakes more than tripe, and that’s fine by me.