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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Momofuku Ssäm Bar (New York, NY)

The Pork Buns that Built an Empire

There's a long-running special on the menu at Momofuku Ssam Bar that perfectly embodies the devotion to gluttony and porcine deliciousness that David Chang's name evokes: the bo ssäm (sometimes spelled "bossam"). It's a pork lover's wet dream -- one designed for sharing with five to nine of your nearest and dearest relapsed Jews pork enthusiasts. The set, which must be reserved in advance through the restaurant's irksome online reservation system, comes with a whole, slow roasted pork shoulder (in this case pork butt, the upper front shoulder of a pig), a dozen oysters, rice, condiments (Napa cabbage and daikon kimchi, pureed kimchi, ginger scallion oil and ssämjan), and bibb lettuce for wrapping it all up.

On a recent weekend, generous visiting friends invited us to partake in this feast. There were ten of us in all and we handily polished off that hunk of pork shoulder, along with sides of steamed pork buns, seasonal pickles and market greens, and dessert.

The slow roasted pork shoulder (a slight departure from the steamed or boiled pork more traditionally used in bo ssäms) was elegantly simple. The outside layer was nicely caramelized and on the inside, the meat was almost unspeakably tender, streaked through and through with generous amounts of fat and broken down collagen, which helped to keep the entire roast moist. When you used the provided meat tongs to rip off a chunk, there was hardly any resistance. According to his published recipe, David Chang achieves this magnificent texture by immersing the shoulder in a salt and sugar brine, and then slow roasting for about seven hours.

Bo Ssam Pork Shoulder

The bibb lettuce used for wrapping was not an afterthought. It was buttery, tender, flavorful and a real delight to eat, even by itself. Kimchi (at the far right in the picture), made of about equal parts daikon cubes and Napa cabbage, was more potent than most restaurant kimchis in Manhattan, but bo ssäm kimchi this was not. (It included no added seafood or sweet fruit.) Even so, I had a very hard time not greedily scarfing both bowls that were brought out to our table. In pureed form (second bowl from the right), the kimchi was a bit more noticeably salty and slightly overwhelming to eat unless you wrapped it with plenty of white rice. Ginger scallion oil (second bowl from left) was a well made, run-of-the-mill rendition and ssämjan (far left) was standard issue, as well.

Bo Ssam Condiments and Lettuce

I didn't actually end up wrapping my ssäm with oysters on the inside, but I did eat one by itself. Flavors were not highly concentrated, but the shellfish was very fresh and of surprisingly quality, given that it was supposed to be eaten in a wrap along with other strong-tasting ingredients like kimchi.

Bo Ssam Oysters

Our order of seasonal pickles included an impressive array of vegetables: beets, white baby radishes, sunchokes, shiitake mushroom, cucumber, green cherry tomatoes, more kimchi, celery, baby carrots and fennel. All of these (except the kimchi) had been lightly pickled in what tasted to me like rice wine vinegar, salt and sugar, a simple preparation that did not garble the distinctive, delicious flavors of each vegetable. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the quick pickling actually highlighted the freshness of the vegetables: The sour vinegar highlighted their innate sweetness.

Seasonal Pickles

Since this was the first time that many of our dining companions had eaten at a Momofuku restaurant, we had to order the steamed buns (pictured at the top of this post), the signature Momofuku dish that launched a thousand diners, copycats and David Chang's Momofuku empire. Fluffy, white buns were filled with two generous slices of pork belly, a moderate amount of hoisin sauce, thinly sliced cucumbers and sliced scallions. Each 3/4" x 1" x 2" cut of pork belly was very tender, lightly seasoned, but intensely flavorful, half glisteny, slippery, silky fat by volume. Cucumber slices and scallions helped balance the richness. This deceptively simple dish is not so difficult to make at home, but to make it this well and to achieve that perfect, tender-to-the-point-of-melting texture and clean, clear taste of pork is a matter that calls for some attention to detail.

The only possible disappointment of the evening was the dish of market greens with XO sauce, which was in our case Swiss chard sauteed with bits of what tasted like bacon and topped with fried onions. In concept, the dish was great, but in execution, the bite I tried (near the bottom of the bowl) was overly salty and too heavily doused in XO sauce.

Swiss Chard

The two drinks Justin and I tried were both erudite, well-conceived, cocktail nerdy concoctions. The spring pea cocktail, made by shaking good mezcal, lime, agave, yellow chartreuse and wasabi with ice, and straining, was beautifully smokey with a modest kick of wasabi. There was just enough sweetness to blunt the high alcohol content.

Spring Pea Cocktail

The mountainside cocktail was made with Japanese whisky, fennel and orange bitters, served with a curl of grapefruit peel. It was a serious, adult drink of the style served at Employee's Only and The Highlands, again with a slight touch of sweetness (from a fennel syrup?). Notably, it was served with the sort of oversized ice cube favored by mixologists for melting at a slower rate than their smaller counterparts.

Mountainside Cocktail

As good as both cocktails were, I would probably just order beer or ginger ale, next time. These cocktails ought to be savored long after a meal, as dessert. They're so heavy that they take away stomach capacity during a meal.

As it was, we ended the meal with orders of black rice horchata with dulce de leche, lime and sake. This barely sweet, light, frozen confection was a perfect chaser for an indulgent meal of fatty pork and strong kimchi. Flavors were interesting, but the slightly icy texture and presentation on a bed of puffed rice did not change my opinion that David Chang does savory much more successfully than he does sweet.

Black Rice Horchata

Thank goodness for all our long, pleasant perambulations around the Lower East Side, afterwards! Otherwise, I might still be digesting that meal, today...

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