For devotees of David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar — and there are enough of them for him to win Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2006 — the opening of a second, larger venture with the mysterious name Momofuku Ssäm Bar was the proverbial flask of whiskey at the middle-school dance. Then came the fine print: They were only serving weird Korean burritos (Ssäm) until 10:30pm, at which time they switched to the full menu focusing on pungent raw fish, organ meat, pork fat, and sake. This was a restaurant for professional cooks, post-shift.
And it still is, but now the full menu is served from 6pm-2am. Some people say, “follow the cabbies” for cheap eats. I say, “follow the chefs.” Momofuku Ssäm isn’t actually cheap, but it’s worth every penny. Two petite steamed Pork-Belly Buns slathered with hoisin are a steal at $9. Another appetizer of Raw Scallops with Pineapple Brunois (fancy chef term for tiny cubes) and Dashi ($14) was a refreshing take on crudo, obscuring the pure flavor of the fish for a more complex and satisfying result.
The house Ssäm ($10), my new go-to burrito, starts with pulled pork, sticky rice, and a flour wrapper, but those are just the hearty bases for Chef Chang’s magic. Edamame is added for a bite of the farm, caramelized onion for sweetness, and white kimchi — a cousin of the usual red variety that focuses more on garlic, ginger and mushroom than chili and cabbage — for, well, its soul (evolved, not created, of course). A bowl of Grilled Rice Cakes ($14) wasn’t something I’d order before the other intriguing options, but it came highly recommended, and I wasn’t let down. The toothsome seared rice tubes, like Korean gnocchi, had every taste bud firing with a heady and fiery sausage, collards, and kimchi sauce. The only dessert they offer is a serviceable Mochi Sampler ($10), but only the tantalizing sweet potato sphere reached the heights of the rest of the meal.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar isn’t just for professionals. But maybe you should just point to random dishes instead of actually reading the menu. How else are you going to find out how great veal head is? There’s a reason the pros come here: the food’s fantastic yet completely different from what they’ve been cooking all night, the drinks are reasonable, the postmodern dark-stained bar is congenial, and it’s open late. Isn’t that just what you’re looking for? But even I wouldn’t get a $10 bread and butter plate — that’s just a rip.