Communal dining at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York
Okay, so I lied. I said I’d cover both Momofuku Ssam Bar and Eleven Madison Park in this entry. But the fact is I just discovered I have no photos from my evening at Eleven Mad, so I am awaiting my dinner companions to send theirs over. This means I won’t get to the Eleven Mad dinner till next post. But it’s all good because I have plenty to say about Ssam Bar.
Momofuku Ssam Bar is the closest thing to a gastropub of Chef David Chang’s family of Momofuku restaurants. (Ssam is in reference to the Korean term for “wrap” and indicates dishes in the Korean cuisine that involve wrapping some meat and pickled veggies in a lettuce leaf and dipping in condiments of sesame oil, salt, and pepper or soy sauce before enjoying.) We went on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend and was told there would be close to a two-hour wait. Fortunately, like Ippudo, the hostess is willing to take down a number and text when the table was ready. That’s when we made our way over to our usual waiting spot at Sake Bar Decibel.
When we returned to Ssam Bar, we were seated on little stools (not sure how I feel about this) at a picnic-style table right next to the brightly lit kitchen. The interior is otherwise dark and heavily wooded (or so I was told). With wooden floors and walls, the boisterous sound of diners could get overwhelming, but it was not bad at all this particular evening, and I had no problems hearing our conversation at normal voice level. The tables are long and meant for sharing with other parties, a concept I very much admire and would employ in my own gastropub. As shy as I am, there’s something about communal dining that really strikes me—I guess I am infatuated with the idea of making new friends over a plate of spectacular food. Pubs should foster a social atmosphere, and what better way to do it than by forcing everyone to rub elbows with strangers?
Anyway, on to the important stuff…the food.
The menu here changes according to what I assume is seasonal and also at the whimsical mercy of the chef. Our first course was oysters on the half shell which were served pretty naked as all good oysters should be to preserve the flavor’s integrity. Despite my digging around online for a menu, I cannot recall where the oysters were from. But what I can recall is the general feeling that the oysters were underwhelming. Fresh, yes. Spectacular, no. I had better oysters sitting on a park bench outside SF’s Ferry Building (gotta love me some Kumamoto oysters).
Next up were duck pâté, uni (sea urchin) with heirloom tomatoes, jellyfish salad, and cold pea soup. Again, everything was good, but nothing was mind-blowing. For the prices we were paying for these small plate offerings, I was expecting something more satisfying. Now I’m not saying the food isn’t good; I’m just saying I’d think twice about paying these prices for this food. You see, I have this Theory of Gastronomical Satisfaction that has developed into a fully bloomed theory over the years. I used to call it a “sliding scale triangle theory thingy” but only came up with a proper name for it today. So my Theory of Gastronomical Satisfaction is this:
Christine Ha’s Theory of Gastronomical Satisfaction:
- There is a triangular relationship between: (a) quality of food, (b) price point, and (c) length of time until gratification;
- There is a linear relationship of expected satisfaction between quality of food and price point, and quality of food and length of time until gratification;
- There ideally should be an inverse relationship between price point and length of time until gratification unless, of course, the food quality is off the charts.
To give an example of my theory, basically, if I pay $$$ for a meal, I expect that meal to equate in 3-stars. If I pay only $5 for a meal, I will only expect a 1-star experience. Similarly, the longer I have to wait to get my hands on a meal, the better I expect it to taste. Whenever I eat something, my satisfaction from it is determined by those three aspects: quality, price, and how long I had to wait for it. If for some reason I feel like the balance is off, then I am not happy. Make sense? Because I had to wait two hours for Ssam Bar (although this was alleviated by our being able to pass time at a nearby bar) and because the food was not cheap (we ended up spending about $100 a person), I expected awesome food. Most of Ssam Bar’s dishes were really good, but not super awesome.
With all that said, the next course of pork belly buns were actually one of the night’s best dishes. Some of my dinner companions found the pork belly too fatty, but I thought it was luxurious especially in contrast with the crispy cucumbers and softer starch of the steamed bun. It was like Peking duck but with pork belly: a marriage of two things I absolutely love. These pork buns were more gelatinous but not as spicy as those of Ippudo, but I thought they were better seasoned.
Next were the main meats of the meal: a lamb dish served with polenta (me likey) and a Wagyu beef (meh—so-so). But those are just my opinions—everyone had differing preferences when it came to the two heaviest meat dishes of the evening.
Our dinner concluded with a helping of Ssam Bar’s corn pie. The crust was like a cornbread, and the ice cream so intensely contrasted with the corniness (hah! I can’t help but use that word) of the plate that it all came together perfectly. Corn pie was another winner of the night, and it picked up what could have been a disenchanting meal.
If you’re wanting to try Momofuku Ssam Bar, definitely order the pork buns and corn pie dessert. Have you been here or to any of the other Momofuku restaurants? Tell me what you thought.
And now I’m off to get into more gastronomical trouble/adventures in Japan and Korea. I can’t wait to eat onigiri from the 7-11s of Japan (which, according to my Theory of Gastronomical Satisfaction, equates to high satisfaction because it’s cheap and quick to obtain and yet pretty delicious), and I’m totally looking forward to every meal experience overseas. Have any suggestions on where I should eat in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Seoul? Let me know that, too, in the comments.