Momofuku Noodle Bar
163 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Chefs David Chang and Joaquin Baca
Lunch and dinner daily
$15 per person minimum for credit cards
Last tried: December 2007
Fried sweetbreads with sweet/spicy soy dipping sauce with scallions tasted like top shelf popcorn chicken-- absolutely rocked. Oysters were meaty, briny and fresh but the spicy fennel mignonette was somewhat bitter. The spicy "rice cakes" (Westernized version of duk bok ki, Korean street food) had terrific chewy texture with charred exterior that is far more sophisticated than the original version, but sadly the sauce was too sweet. The brussel sprouts and bacon with kimchi puree was as satisfying as before, but this time, the brussel sprouts were a bit mushy.
Momofuku ramen, on the other hand, is perfection upon perfection, with Tampopo-like broth, noodles, and pork, and deserves its porky respect.
Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 Second Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Lunch and dinner daily
Last tried: August 2007
Previously tried: February 2007
The Momofuku restaurants-- both the noodle bar and the ssam (phonetic for "wrap" in Korean) bar-- are reputed to be an addiction for chefs. I was fortunate enough to try both during a recent trip to New York, and I can see why. Both are hip and trendy without being pretentious, with adventurous flavors and ingredients from local farms combining to provide rib-sticking, satisfying food.
At the noodle bar (literally a bar, no tables), the offerings are not only hearty, generous, and inexpensive but also soulful and elegant, with intriguing and original flavor combinations such as charred brussel sprouts spiced with kimchee puree and pancetta, garnished with carrots sliced as thin as angel hair pasta. The compact menu offers small dishes such as smoked chicken wings, fried sweetbreads, and steamed pork buns, ranging from $9 to $13; generous servings of crudos and shellfish plates at $13-$16; and enormous bowls of noodles with pork, duck or chicken for $9-$16. As if that were not enough, the noodle bar even sports quite a nice beer and sake list, including Japanese microbrews and even a namasake ($8/glass; $38 bottle).
I started with the hamachi crudo, comprised of about 8-10 slices of pink and creamy fish as fresh as one would find in a top notch sushi bar, dressed with yuzu and topped with sweet, vibrant blood orange segments and julienned pieces of dark green nori. I also tried the fluke sashimi served with a miso-onion marmalade, as well as the grilled cuttlefish on rice noodles, dressed with yuzu and intermingled with transparently thin slices of jalapeno peppers, topped with bits of what looked and tasted like spicy rice crispies. Although the fluke was the least successful among the three appetizers (I would have preferred thinner slices of the fluke, and the fish got lost among the flavors), I loved the savory marmalade, which was reminiscent of the sauce on Korean-Chinese black bean noodles, purportedly a favorite of Chef David Chang.
Among the noodles, my favorite was the Momofuku ramen. I loved the absolutely decadent thick slices of braised kurobuta pork belly, with glistening, melting (literally) fat studded with tender pork meat swimming in the rich broth. The Momofuku ramen bowl also includes a mound of shredded kurobuta pork-- better than any carnitas I have ever tasted-- with a poached egg resting on top of the handmade noodles and garnished with fresh, chopped chives. I have no doubt that the savory brown broth is loaded with pork fat, yet it is not the least bit heavy or greasy. It was the perfect dish to combat a bitter cold February winter day.
The ssam bar, a few blocks away from the noodle bar in the East Village, is more spacious, including a few tables, but everyone still seemed to vie for the seats at the bar where you can better spy the action in the open kitchen. In addition to beer and sake, the ssam bar offers a compact list of well chosen wines to match the food, including a variety of sparkling wines from Spain, Australia, Loire Valley, and of course, Champagne, and even a magnum of 2003 Valderiz Ribera del Duero for $120.
My favorite ssam was the marinated hanger steak ssam-- thick slices of medium rare beef tenderized by a marinade of soy, apple juice, sesame oil, and spices-- accompanied by two sauces, a spicy (but not overwhelming) kimchee puree and a refreshing ginger/scallion puree which complemented one another beautifully. Instead of the traditional green leaf lettuce for ssam, the wraps were large leaves of fresh butter leaf lettuce. Quite upscale for ssam and quite delicious.
Interestingly, my favorite from the ssam bar menu was the spicy honecomb tripe stew. I only like tripe when it completely loses any semblance to tripe. But this was unadulterated tripe-- the kind that I would normally squeamish away from. A giant bowl of spicy kimchee-flavored broth with rectangles of tender yet still slightly chewy braised tripe, garnished with finely chopped sweet white onion. With a bowl of Japanese sushi restaurant quality sticky white rice and a sake, it was heaven. On the other hand, I was not as crazy about the Momofuku ssam, which although still tasty, was basically a giant carnitas burrito, with kimchee puree in place of salsa and edamame instead of refried beans. Even in the course of a single visit (two, if you count the noodle bar), the kitchen had already spoiled me into expecting something unusual and unexpected.
I was also less enamored with some of the small plates I sampled. First, because they were not small. While I appreciate the value factor, the giant bowl of black truffle chawan mushi was quite simply gigantic and overwhelming. Although the custard was properly done to the requisite jiggly, panna cotta consistency, the size detracted from the quality of the dish. Chawan mushi is supposed to be piping, scalding hot in a tiny cup. That giant bowl could never get to be the right temperature without overcooking the custard, and the truffles and escargot accompaniments, while opulent, did not match as the result was heavy and rich, whereas chawan mushi should be ethereal and light. The uni with yuzu-whipped tofu and black tapioca pearls (the giant kind you find in Japanese sweetened cold teas) was really interesting. Sadly, I am spoiled by the quality of uni I can get in California, and these were rather tough in texture.
I wish I could have tasted more dishes at both places, but I am really not exaggerating when I say the portions are huge. If I had to choose between the two variations, the noodle bar seemed to be more seasoned and better articulated, but I suspect the ssam bar will catch up soon. Sitting on a bar stool slurping ramen and sipping sake-- life as a lawyer does not always suck.