January 18th, 2018 Update:
Michelin season came and went, generating the usual fanfare and excitement, essential preventing most from noticing the more important stars being distributed. Around the same time, Momofuku Ssam Bar received 3 New Your Times Stars from Pete Wells, and only those in the restaurant industry got the memo. In fact I was told about it a few months ago by another chef when we talked about the all important subject of Skate (fish). The conversation led to Ssam Bar whose Skate helped earn the coveted stars.
The Skate is perhaps the biggest addition to the menu by Singapore born Max Ng who took over the helm last year. Its essentially a revolving door of Momofukus graduating from Ko to run the babies, Ssam, Nishi, Ma Peche, before moving on to other ventures around the world. You also get a sense of maturation these days, as the chief Fuku Mr Chang swaying from the idea of “if the food is good, they will come no matter what”, making Nishi and Ssam a lot more comfortable these days. Gone are the days of sharing a cramped communal table while studying the latest techniques in dish washing through a mountain of napkins.
And the food is of course the same old inventive awesomeness. Good enough in fact to earn three more hard earned stars from the chief editor of EWZ. Not sure what took me so long to finally try their Country Ham. Benton’s ham from Madisonville, TN was silky and salty alright, but the accompanied gravy with hints of espresso is enough reason to order a plate of Ham at Ssam Bar. Max’s additions like “Curry & Potatoes” with burrata, spinach, and Garam Marsala seasoning was more restrained for a Fuku establishment but still pleasant to the palate. When you finish it, you wish for some naan to properly scoop the leftovers. Roasted Cauliflower came surprisingly whole and flaky covered with just enough porky and lardo vinaigrette to keep it interesting. The Fried Sunchokes with eggs was a little bit more dull in comparison.
And then came the main events. The off menu rice cakes with the spicy ragu. The rice cakes got crunchier, and the ragu less spicy over the years, but this is still a must order. The grilled Flatiron was cooked to medium rare perfection, and probably the star with the family. They liked it more than the Skate. It arrived sitting on a banana leaf covered with shrimp Belacan, a funky fermented Malaysian shrimp paste. A little too much funk for my women, so I was enjoying most of it by myself. The smell, unlike from similar pastes like XO, is slightly off-putting, but the flavors are there. Although I found better results when combining the Skate meat with the porky ragu from the rice cakes. I’m ready for my Ko internship.
No dessert on this one since we are eating with the girls a mile within Spot Dessert Bar.
April 19, 2016 Post:
Servers have a tough job. We learn more and more the more we dine. For example, ever wonder when servers are asked “what’s good here”, they often stumble or tell you to get the most expensive dish. The correct answer is actually the stumble, usually indicative of the “if its not good, it wouldnt be on the menu”. But often enough, the best dish is in fact its most expensive. Whether its the use of expensive ingredients, popularity, labor intensive, the reasons are numerous. Servers are not stupid. They already know all about the “Oh, he’s probably saying that to get a bigger tip”, and all the rest of them. Which is yet another reason for the hesitations
At the last meal at Momofuku Ssam Bar I didnt ask the server “what’s good here” because I already had a good idea from previous visits, and Chowhound chatter. The only questions I asked the server centered around the most expensive dish, the whole boneless Porgy. “How were the bones removed”, “What’s in the green sauce”, “where did the Porgy come from”, “What was his name”. An instant classic that blew us away like no other whole fish before.
This Long Island sound Porgy shows up in all her glory, with head and teeth and all. Except for the main bone that was surgically removed. The fish is dressed with the momofuku signature ginger scallion sauce which made Mrs Z take note. One bite, and you can tell this is not your average grilled branzino. Another bite and its an entire Havah Nagilla rendition in your mouth. By the 5th bite, you want to run around with scissors, naked. And then at around the 5th inning, you feel you must try the accompanied lettuce, and tortillas to make fish wraps. You experiment by adding some pickled bean sprouts, some cabbage, and creme fraiche, and you are suddenly the world’s greatest fish taco maker. The fish comes with all these goodies in “Ssam” style (“Ssam” essentially means everything you need to make wraps)
The Porgy and the rest of the meal help cement this one, not only as part the Z-List, but as one of my favorite restaurants in NYC. Maybe top 5. The signature steamed buns are perhaps better then Ippudo’s me thinks now (making a historic change of mind). The spicy sausage with rice cakes is another signature that continues to please. The spring menu featuring the scrumptious Broccolini with thinly sliced beef tongue and egg is adds more joy. The Porgy is $42 but can easily feed two. Add the rice cakes, pork buns, Broccolini, and you got yourself a great meal for under $150. The only forgettable dish this time was the Octopus salad. No much wrong there, just average octopus
The only thing I have to mention here is that Ssam Bar will not win any comfort awards, especially if you are two people. You will sit at a long communal table either facing workers cleaning glasses or facing each other next to other diners. And oooh boy the place can get loud. But we are in it for the food, and as long as no one is poking me or runs around naked with scissors, we’ll keep coming for that Porgy
207 2nd Ave (East Village)
Rating: Three Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Country Ham, Max’s Curry & Potatoes, Roasted Cauliflower, Pork Buns, Flatiron, Skate, Whole Roasted Fish Ssam, Rice Cakes