About a year and a half ago, young chef David Chang opened Momofuku Ssäm Bar on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street, and a cult was born. Those who worship at the altar of pork are eligible, but it takes more than that to become a full-fledged member. You must also be willing to engage in year-long debates over "new paradigms" in restaurant cooking and service, and must be, to a certain extent, willing to fawn a bit over the manly persona Chang has cultivated in the media. I certainly bow down to all things pig, but I haven't really gotten on board with the last two items.
That's not to say that Momofuku Ssäm isn't fantastic - because it is. The food is awesome, the casual, bustling atmosphere is energizing, and the service, while occasionally brusque, is knowledgeable and speedy.
The cooking is hard to pin down into any one cuisine or genre - if pressed, I'd call it Korean-Vietnamese-American fusion. It's a restaurant that serves banh mi alongside Virginia ham, that dresses Brussels sprouts in fish sauce vinaigrette and tops them with chili-dusted Rice Krispies. It is vehemently not vegetarian friendly, and says so right there on the menu. It is very much its own.
On my last visit, I shared a table with Nick, Louisa, my brother Jeremy and my sister-in-law Miriam. We waited a bit for a table (no reservations, unless you've pre-ordered the Bo Ssäm), mostly because Jer was tied up at another drinks thing. Momofuku has a bar, but it's for eating, so we were shown to the back of the restaurant, near the pass, where bar-height tables have been placed to accommodate folks just like us. A bottle of Alsatian cremant later, we took our seats and ordered pretty much the whole menu.
Everything is family-style, down to the chopsticks and napkins, so we all dug in as the food was brought, platter by laden platter, to the table. Everyone had different favorites; Louisa loved the three-terrine banh mi, a super-rich take on the traditional Vietnamese sandwich (which is itself a multi-cultural combination of French technique and Asian ingredients). Jer and Nick were enamored of the pork buns, pillowy mounds of steamed dough sliced open and filled with cucumber pickles and melting pork belly.
My personal favorites were the seasonal pickles, the (two orders of) Brussels sprouts (salt and crunchy and nutty, oh my), and the grilled pork belly. Served with a mustardy sauce, white rice, slivered razor clams and lettuce in which to wrap up all the goodness, it presented my favorite characteristics - hot and cold, soft and crunchy, meaty and tangy. How could I not love it?
Needless to say, we were pretty well and stuffed by the time dinner was over. By the time we were paying the check, a group of blond frat boy types had joined us at the table - we were puzzled to see them there, but, really, that's what building a brand is all about - reaching beyond the acolytes to welcome those from outside of the foodie fold.
In all honesty, it was a really refreshing sight to see.