I was much less itinerant than planned last weekend, unfortunately; the Carnivore’s father was hospitalized, so we were grounded in NYC. It was a birthday trip; I couldn’t go without him, even as starved for travel as I am. Of course, staying in town meant that I had to scramble to come up with a place to celebrate at the last minute; luckily, I keep a long list for just such an occasion.
His only requests were for oysters and fruity cocktails, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar had both on the menu. Not the best idea for a Saturday night at peak dining hours, but we grabbed a quick drink at a nearby pub, then headed back to the restaurant. We’d barely had time to order a beverage from the extensive list (that’s his Ginger Rogers at the top of the picture, composed of rum, cognac, lemon and ginger, and my ginger-pomegranate-rye sour at the bottom) before we were summoned to the communal table.
As oysters were our primary motivation for choosing this particular spot, we ordered a half-dozen as soon as we sat down.
The bivalves themselves, from Barron Point, Washington, were impeccably firm and briny with a creamy texture; the kimchi sauce added an unusual note, one I appreciated. The Carnivore, not so much. We both missed the finishing squeeze of lemon, although lime may have been more in keeping with the kimchi—either way, the oysters called for a bit of acid.
Next up was the cured hamachi, one of my favorite dishes of the evening. The Carnivore found it to be a bit bland, which couldn’t have made me happier. More for me that way.
A slice of the subtle yellowtail—sprinkled with dried nori, dragged through a schmear of horseradishy purée, and eaten with a pea shoot and a single kernel of edamame—was an ideal bite.
David Chang, the ubiquitous founder of the Momofuku mini-empire, is perhaps most well-known for his pork buns, so an order of those was practically an imperative. Though tasty, I wasn’t overly impressed; I much prefer Ippudo’s.
Unable to decide between the two items on the local/seasonal portion of the menu, we went with both. Below, fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce and mint, topped with seasoned Rice Krispies-esque cereal. Gourmet printed the recipe for this dish a few years ago, and it was my preferred sprout preparation for awhile, even though I’d never managed to drag myself to the Ssäm Bar to try the real deal before.
The homemade version was good, but let me tell you, these suckers were crazy-good. The crispy, charred outer leaves gave way to a soft-but-not-mushy interior; funky fish sauce and cooling mint played perfectly off of each other, and the puffed-rice topping added a satisfying crunch. This was another one that I liked more than the Carnivore did, and, again, I wasn’t complaining.
I wasn’t such a fan of the other offering: apple kimchi with bacon. Though the idea of fermenting apples instead of cabbage was an appealing one, ultimately, I was underwhelmed. The Carnivore, true to form, loved the bacon; I didn’t see anything special about it. This was the only plate we ordered and left unfinished.
After a quick consultation with our neighbors at the communal table, we decided to order something we probably wouldn’t have otherwise: crispy pig’s head, with sauerkraut and pear mostarda. Meaty interior, crunchy exterior, supremely flavorful: When I eat Char No. 4’s pork nuggets, this is what I always hope they’ll be, usually to no avail. The sauerkraut, a form of cabbage that I’m just beginning to enjoy, and the mostarda were the perfect sour and sweet foils to the well-salted pork. Hands down one of the top two dishes of the evening.
Our swine-centric adventure continued with the pork-shoulder steak. Words cannot describe the incredible flavor of this piece of meat, so I’ll say that both the seasoning and the cooking were pretty much perfect and leave it at that. This is a must-order, trust me.
I’m a share-the-love kind of eater: It’s tough for me to sit in close proximity to like-minded diners without pushing them to try whatever incredible concoction happens to be in front of me. (As someone of both Italian and Jewish heritage, I’m genetically predisposed to feed people. I’ve come to terms with it.) After several rounds of ginger-based cocktails for us and sake for our neighbors, we’d swapped bites of pork for octopus, vegetables for lard. (No, really. It came with the bread-and-butter plate.) The conversation was flowing as strongly as the drinks. (Her name was Maya, too; there aren’t many of us, so that was easy bonding material.)
So, it seemed only natural that, when their dessert came, they asked the waiter for two extra spoons. They’d ordered the PB&J, a deconstructed version of the classic sandwich, with concord-grape sorbet, peanut-butter nougat, and crumbled Ritz crackers sprinkled over the whole plate. A forkful of all three elements was bizarrely compelling; the interplay between cool and warm, crunchy and smooth, made it impossible to take just one bite. A whole serving for the two of us would’ve been too much, but split between four, it was just right.
It was no weekend in San Francisco, but, thanks to the kindness of strangers and the talent of Momofuku’s kitchen and bar staff, a birthday that could have been depressingly bad ended on a high note. Sometimes, despite myself, I just have to love New York.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Avenue (corner of 13th Street)
New York, NY