Click here for Part I of A Very Momofuku Weekend (Momofuku Ko).
Click here for Part II of A Very Momofuku Weekend (Ma Peche, Milk Bar).
Sunday, April 25, 2010: Momofuku Ssam Bar and Momofuku Noodle Bar
If Ma Peche is Momofuku for the suit-and-tie crowd, and Ko is Momofuku for fancy people, then Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar are Momofuku for the masses. You didn’t come to Momofuku for foie gras, caviar, or a perfectly marbled steak. You came to Momofuku for pork, and pork you shall receive.
Ssam and Noodle are fraternal twins. They’re not identical but they certainly share the same DNA and a few attributes. For example, you can find the pork buns at either restaurant. However, in order to provide some separation greater than the one city block between them, the menu at Noodle focuses on big bowls of, well, noodles. Ssam, on the other hand, has a more eclectic selection of smaller plates.
I sat down to dinner at Ssam at about 1:30 a.m. in the wee hours of Sunday morning. If you thought a burrito hit the spot after a night of drinking, might I suggest the spicy pork sausage and rice cakes. The pork was ground up, freed from any casing, with all of the plate appeal of ropa vieja or Fancy Feast. But looks can be deceiving. One of the most gratifying aspects of the food at Ssam and Noodle is an unabashed eagerness to spice dishes the way that they’re intended to be served, rather than trying to please everyone by offering varying levels of spice. This dish in particular was unafraid to offend delicate eaters and, as a result, rewards the more adventurous. The rice cakes share certain attributes with the rice fries at Ma Peche in that they are crisp on the outside and give way to a softer center. They provide a brief respite from the spicy pork. Alternatively, you could suck on a fire extinguisher.
Kimchi, that vehicle for pickled flavors coupled with spice and some sort of indescribable funk, came in the form of a fuji apple kimchi with jowl bacon. More traditional is the cabbage kimchi at Noodle Bar, which could absorb more of the pickling spices rather than having them rest atop the chunks of apple. With cabbage, the funk seeps in, like when you’re listening to George Clinton and you take a handful of Quaaludes.
Those aforementioned pork buns delivered as promised with the pork cooked low and slow, just enough fat and the traditional accoutrements. Two perfect bites.
And finally the fried baby artichokes, which were shredded, fried crisp and served with pistachio, sunchokes, and bottarga (a salted fish roe). I wonder if it is cruel to devour baby vegetables. I mean, these baby artichokes never even got a chance to grow up.
Ssam delivered on what I came to New York City and to the Momofuku family of restaurants expecting. A grounding in Korean flavors, coupled with seasonal and local ingredients. To quote Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were!”
Dinner at Noodle Bar followed on Sunday evening, my final night in NYC. A repeat of the pork buns for my tablemates to enjoy (and who are kidding, it’s not like you needed to put a gun to my head to get me to order the damn things). The cabbage kimchi in a little glass jar. Three tamales, wrapped in banana leaves like Christmas morning beneath the tree. And a big bowl of ramen. There was a slice of pork belly or two in the bowl, some shredded pork shoulder, a poached egg. My wish list.
And after finishing with a soft serve ice cream (this time olive oil and pickled cherry swirl) and as we took care of the check, an older gentlemen with a beard like Santa Claus fell to the floor choking. My tablemates and I determined that there was nothing we could do since (1) we aren’t trained in CPR and (2) the restaurant staff appeared to be. If this were a novel or a film, you might say that this is some type of foreshadowing. Everything would be in slow motion at this point. The lesson you’d learn is that gluttony is a sin and that my Momofuku weekend was of the cardinal variety. Fortunately, there is no moral to this story. Just a lot of sodium. (And since we didn’t stick around to gawk, I can’t say how that other story ends.)