Ssäm Kind of Wonderful

Momofuku Ssäm BarPhoto: Bumblebee Studio for New York Magazine

Since we’re at the tail end of a long and dreary winter, and since I’ve been grumpily attempting to do what no restaurant critic should ever do, which is go on a diet, let me start by noting just one or two of the very minor things that I don’t like about David Chang’s much-debated, much-hyped, and now perpetually mobbed restaurant in the East Village, Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I don’t like paying $8 for bread and butter, even if the butter is made from the milk of organic goats in England. I don’t especially like effete $10 tastings of noble, decidedly un-effete Kentucky ham. I don’t like the fact that a place serving grilled veal sweetbreads and the finest sea urchin from Maine can’t be bothered to serve coffee or tea. But mostly what I don’t like about the newest Momofuku (Chang also operates his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, around the corner) is the unseemly way in which Chang’s inventive, deeply flavored cooking can reduce even the sturdiest, most jaded eater to weak-kneed paroxysms of glee.

“Oh, dude, you gotta taste the veal head,” exclaimed a normally unflappable veteran gourmand as we awaited the arrival of one of Chang’s signature creations, a giant, slow-roasted Berkshire-pork butt called the Bo Ssäm. Veal head, for those of you who may not know, is the head of a young calf, here boiled down to its most palatable essence, which is the cheeks and tongue plus a mishmash of unmentionable jellies and membranes. Chang presses these remains into a terrine, sprinkles them with chile powder and other seasonings, cools them overnight, shaves them in wafer-thin slices, and serves them on a hot plate, with grilled toast. The meat is cut so thin that the heat of the plate practically melts it. By the time it gets from the toast to your mouth, it’s a pleasant jumble of heat (chile), soft gaminess (cheeks and tongue), and gently dissolving fat (jellies and membranes). The dish arrived, and my burly friend commenced scooping at it with his toast. “Oh, man,” he whispered, with a kind of junkie’s rapture, “this is just sooo damn gooood.”

Like Mario Batali and the great British chef Fergus Henderson, Chang is a card-carrying member of what one of my dining friends calls the “Refined Meathead” school of cooking. Meathead chefs have a fondness for pork products and for offal (“We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items,” says the menu at Momofuku Ssäm Bar), and the best of them, including Chang, have a knack for creating big, addictive flavor combinations that get under your skin. Like Batali, Chang—a Korean-American, raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.—mines his own ethnic background for inspiration. The past couple of years, he has been demonstrating his talents on a more modest scale at his madly popular original restaurant. But the newest Momofuku (the word means “lucky peach” in Japanese) is larger and more ambitious than the original, and after a period of bumbling experimentation (at first Chang insisted on selling only a form of Asian burrito called a ssäm), it has grown into a showplace for the chef’s unique brand of earthy, Asian-accented Meathead cuisine.

Not everything at Momofuku Ssäm Bar is designed for consumption by lumberjacks, of course. The ladies at our table politely averted their eyes when the veal-head terrine arrived, but couldn’t keep from devouring Chang’s excellent fried Brussels sprouts, which are delicately frizzled around the edges and tossed with Vietnamese fish sauce, chiles, and sprigs of fresh mint. There’s a cooling squid salad, too (inventively sprinkled with the crunchy Indian street snack called chat), a couple of soothing raw-seafood items (hamachi, scallops), and a serving of thinly sliced apples dusted with peanuts, bacon bits, and litchi gelée. Pork fanatics can whet their appetites with the aforementioned tastings of artisanal southern hams, although the more-adventurous choices on the small-items side of the menu would be the sea urchin (paired with whipped tofu and tapioca balls), and a strangely bracing combination of the velvety Japanese egg custard called chawan mushi poured over crushed edamame and topped, on the evening I tried it, with gently braised snails.

In accordance with Meathead philosophy, this food is served in a stripped-down, utilitarian style (rock music blares over the loudspeakers, the best seats are stools at the bar), and the truly righteous dishes can be found on the right side of the menu, under headings like “O ffal” and “Stews.” Chang is already justly famous for his crunchy, Vietnamese-style “three terrine” sandwich (veal terrine, chicken liver, ham, and cilantro, pressed between fresh ciabatta), but the offal dish I couldn’t stop thinking about was the honeycomb tripe, which is slow-braised with bacon, chiles, and chopped carrots and served in a white bowl, like Texas chili, with a porcelain Chinese spoon. The beef-and-ox-tongue clay pot has a similarly salty-sweet, compulsively edible quality, and so does the shellfish clay pot, with a spicy, milky Korean broth. The restaurant’s signature dish is the excellent Momofuku Ssäm, which is stuffed with braised pork and a hint of puréed kimchee. Chang has recently added Vietnamese lettuce wraps to his menu, which you can get with Berkshire-pork sausage (ground with lemongrass), or strips of almost unnaturally tender hanger steak.

Inevitably, Chang’s sense of largesse sometimes goes over-the-top. My portion of pan-fried skate was obscured by an overly large pile of lemon-peel confit, and the chunky, pricey rib eye ($115 for two) was muffled in too much sweet garlic confit. But this chef’s strength is that he knows what he likes, and what he likes he generally tends to do well. Maybe that’s why there’s no dessert to speak of at Momofuku Ssäm Bar (you can get a selection of Japanese mochi rice balls stuffed with ice cream), though if you order the great Rabelaisian Bo Ssäm, you won’t need any dessert. The entire pork butt costs $180 (it serves six to eight), and has to be ordered in advance. It’s rubbed with a simple mixture of brown sugar and salt, and slow-roasted for eight hours. By the time it’s hoisted to the table (with a flotilla of raw oysters, and lettuce for wrapping), it’s honey brown on the top and soft enough to eat with flimsy Japanese chopsticks. Is it good? Of course. Did it cause me to squeal out, like the other Meatheads at my table, and begin eating with my fingers? I’m ashamed to say that it did.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
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Address: 207 Second Ave., at 13th St.; 212-254-3500
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Dinner 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Prices: Small plates, $8 to $16; entrées, $19 to $32 ($115 for the rib eye, $180 for the pork butt).
Ideal Meal: Fried Brussels sprouts, three-terrine sandwich, spicy tripe, warm veal-head terrine, Momofuku Ssäm.
Note: Don’t bother with the cafeteria-style lunch, which appears to be a bizarre Korean-fusion approximation of Chipotle’s.
Scratchpad: Could a place that doesn’t even serve coffee really be a three-star restaurant? Maybe not. But since we’re Meatheads, and David Chang is the Nobu of the Meatheads, we can’t resist.

Ssäm Kind of Wonderful