Momofuku Ssam Bar has long been one of the crown jewels of chef David Chang’s empire in New York City, an institution that has pioneered the bold style of chef Chang that, while ostensibly based on pan-Asian tradition, is not bound by any particular influence. I have typically had mixed experiences at Momofuku restaurants, due largely to the fact that the “fusion” cuisine pioneered by chef Chang doesn’t always get the execution right consistently and resorts to strong flavors that may appeal to the ordinary American diners but I often found to be overwhelming at times. When I saw a New York Times review last fall discussing the evolution of Ssam Bar under the new Singaporean chef Max Ng who used to be the chef de cuisine at Momofuku’s fine dining establishment Ko, I was still somewhat on the fence whether I should give this restaurant a try. After finally visiting the new Ssam Bar with my wife Jun and another couple (which allowed us to sample as many dishes as possible), I am happy to report that this restaurant is doing quite well.
The menu at Ssam Bar consists of raw and small plates, country hams and larger options. If you want to get one of those popular ssam options for large groups, you have to order in advance, which we unfortunately didn’t. Still, none of the people in our group complained with the still iconic pork buns with cucumber and scallion (no matter how appetizing it sounds, it seemed too much to pay $28 apiece for the white sturgeon caviar bun on the menu instead). I was also a huge fan of the Max’s curry and potatoes dish with burrata, spinach and garam marsala whose spicy kick made such a wonderful effect to the overall flavor of the dish. While neither Jun nor I are huge fans of foie gras in general, the playful foie gras taiyaki had the delightfully sweet sensation with the use of apricot, white port honey and candied brown rice sprinkled on top.
For the larger dishes, Jun and my favorite dish was the extra spicy shell-on shrimp with Sichuan-garlic butter, rice cakes and potatoes. You can eat the entire shrimps, which are relatively tiny in size, without peeling off their shells, and the almost cathartic sensation from the heat provided by the Sichuan-garlic butter kept us digging this outstanding dish. Banana leaf roasted skate was nicely cooked but a bit too aggressive in flavor compared to the other dishes, although the kitchen thoughtfully serves out rice porridges for the diners to neutralize the skate’s flavor somewhat. Jun and I often lament that American restaurants too oftentimes over-season their steaks, but the 28-day dry aged striploin was more or less devoid of salt or any other condiments (other than the béarnaise sauce on the side, which turned out to be totally unnecessary) just the way we liked, allowing us to appreciate the texture of the meat.
The restaurant, in a departure from the notoriously difficult to navigate Momofuku online reservation, accepts reservations on OpenTable which makes it a little easier to secure your tables, especially now that Ssam Bar has expanded to also take over the space formerly occupied by Booker and Dax next door. There is full bar with some creative cocktail menus that could go well with the dishes at the restaurant. The casual vibe of Ssam Bar has not changed from its older days, although it seems like the restaurant is now starting to care more about the comfort of the diners (instead of the long communal table with stools, the more “ordinary” tables with actual chairs with backs have occupied the dining space). I was very impressed with the versatile cooking at Ssam Bar, and highly encourage people who haven’t visited the restaurant in a while to check it out again; it certainly is different from the one I had visited six years ago for a pedestrian lunch meal.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 207 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003
Telephone: (212) 254-3500