Last Thanksgiving, the Teen and I were in New York and we decided to head down to “Elvie’s turo-turo” for some Filipino comfort food. We took a bus downtown to the East Village, walked up to Elvie’s, and were both shocked and disappointed to see it had permanently closed for business. Bummer. So after a quick visit to nearby Gabay’s, the close-out shoe/clothing store with occasional GREAT finds, we started to wander east in search of some lunch. After a couple of minutes, we found ourselves in front of Momofuku Ssam Bar, and wanting something at least Asian in the flavor spectrum, we decided to give it another try. Roughly two and a half years earlier, we had lunch at the same restaurant, and despite all the rave reviews at the time, we had a surprisingly plebeian and unremarkable lunch, so blah in fact that I decided not to write about it then (even a quick post on Hershey’s Kisses 100th anniversary made it onto the blog from that trip instead!).
But I am happy to say we had a wonderful meal second time around. Wonderful. The Teen ordered from the reasonably priced (< $30) prix fixe menu and started with a bowl of sichuan beef tendon which we shared, a bowl of unusual but stunningly good braised beef brisket with rice noodles, and ended with a thai iced tea parfait. I ordered the steamed pork buns for which momfuku has attained cult status, and a generous plate of seasonal pickles. The pickles, top photo, were a STANDOUT. I knew the second after tasting the first piece of pickled endive that we were going to be in for a pretty surprising lunch. The plate included shiitakes, endive, cauliflower, bokchoy, cucumbers, kimchi, etc. and were the perfect foil for the pork buns. I promised myself I would try and make them back home. The Sichuan Beef Tendon was also outstanding. Served cold (a twist we weren't expecting), this dish wasn't only about depth of flavor, it was about the slightly unusual texture and mouth feel of the very thinly sliced tendon. Good grief, who would have thought tendon would yield such bliss. The Teen had a bit of this, found it a touch odd, but I polished off the rest of the bowl happily.
Having spent the year immersed in roast pork, I thought I should try some other examples to keep it real (hence a much earlier post on porchetta, and this foray into pork belly), and it helps that Mr. Bourdain suggested we go back and give Momofuku another try, so I got the classic pork buns. These were SUPERB. Will compare them to the first time we went to Momofuku, with photos below. Here the pork was tender, melt in your mouth and flavorful. Served in a flat bun (thus not overly bready) with some hoisin or other dark sauce concoction and some sliced cucumbers, this definitely hit the spot. And the fat dripping down my forearm and onto the plate was definitely a good sign.
Portions were just the right size so far, and the flavor spectrum was broad and on occasion, sharp, with high notes that I look for in food from chefs who are in the limelight. And so the bliss continued with the bowl of braised beef brisket, made up of several tender pieces of brisket, possibly then seared on a hot pan, then returned to a bowl of rice noodles with a comforting broth, coriander, bean sprouts and a lot of lime juice. It was definitely a take on a bowl of Vietnamese Pho, but with beef and with a pride all its own. Excellent.
Finally, the Teen’s rather weird sounding thai iced tea parfait arrived and it was also a stunner. The flavor of Thai iced tea in a gelatinous block, served with lemon mascarpone and all I can say is it worked. The plate was clean when we left. At $60 or less for the entire meal, with drinks, we left well satiated and happy to have given Momofuku another try. A few days later I purchased David Chang’s (the proprietor/chef) cookbook with the primary objective of replicating those wonderful pickles…
But rewind over two years, to a lunch we had at Momufuku Ssam Bar just months after it opened, and had by then built a reputation as a late night hangout of chefs and other restaurant crews, and we would have rated it a 5 or 6 out of 10.0. I had some pork and rice with a side of fresh soybeans, photo above, that wasn’t any better than some rice toppings available at a fast food restaurant in Manila… It was even served on a disposable plastic plate.
The pork buns had shredded pork that was dry and tasted like it had been cooked the day before, and we also had other items that simply did not impress. It was cheaper then, but the food wasn’t worth it. Perhaps lunch wasn’t the time to hit the hotspot, but they shouldn’t have bothered to open for lunch if the food was that mediocre.
So I was incredibly surprised to read David Chang’s introduction in his cookbook Momofuku where he goes into some history of the restaurants, his cooking background, etc. and when he narrates the experience of Momofuku Ssam Bar, he alludes to the early problems with the lunch time menu but thankfully goes on to reconfigure the offerings and he has today, in our opinion, a wonderful set of dishes that are a pleasure to eat. It’s no small added tidbit that the man is reputedly somewhat ornery and snarled at customers early on, something I can definitely relate to… :) If you haven’t been, try it. If you can’t get to New York, try his book instead, he has recipes for his pork buns, pickles, and other goodies from the restaurants he owns…