taking a bite out of the big apple 1.3: momofuku ssam bar

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:


  1. There is a triangular relationship between: (a) quality of food, (b) price point, and (c) length of time until gratification;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.

22 Responses to taking a bite out of the big apple 1.3: momofuku ssam bar
  1. J. Dent Reply

    Sounds like some interesting experiences at Momofuku Ssam Bar. I've never heard of the place until now, but it sounds like an interesting place that might be worth a try, aside from the long wait, the just-ok food, and the high prices. If they serve those wraps there, that would be an experience I'd have to pass up though. I've got a long list of food allergies and most of them are found in the raw fruit and vegetables area, no joke. But some of it sounds really good, especially that corn pie. I like corn bread, but I never would have figured to use it as pie crust, even after the corny MasterChef episode.

    I like your theory too. It puts my own expectations and such about dining out in a nice, mathematical format. I'd say your theory has a lot of evidence to back it up too.

    Anyway, sounds like your food adventures are just beginning. Good luck and hope you have a good time in Japan and Korea. I've had some good Japanese food before, but never from the original source. So, lucky you on getting to experience it up close and personal.

    • Christine Ha Reply

      You should try Ssam Bar if you ever get the chance. I respect other people's opinions even if they differ from my own.And raw produce allergies? I guess you could never go on the Paleo diet.

      • J. Dent Reply

        I'd be glad to try a lot of the places you've mentioned in your posts. They sound really good.

        Yep. Actually, it's a more of a blanket statement, but when I've had raw produce, it's always been the same result.

  2. Jason Reply

    Maybe I missed it, but what's the green soup? It looks awesome. Is it a spinach soup of some sort?

    This makes me want to go get some Korean food and have the Feast Of A Thousand Sides. Particularly the crunchy strips of salty fish skin and the spicy red stuff that's not kimchi. Oh, and the bean sprouts and vinegar seaweed stuff. Maybe it's a little sad that I don't know the names of all the dishes, but I love them just the same. I just wish the closest Korean restaurant wasn't two hours away.

    • Christine Ha Reply

      Yes, the soup was green. It was pea soup.Perhaps the spicy side dish you're referring to is spicy fermented radish…? If it is, I love that stuff too. I also like the potatoes. I will be in Korea next week and plan to blog about it once I get back so stay tuned.

  3. Francis Reply

    Theory of Gastronomical Satisfaction? HAHAHA what a food nerd ;). I love it. You should try bizarre street foods in Korea or Japan. Silkworms perhaps? =D

    • Christine Ha Reply

      Indeed I am a food nerd and damn proud of it!

  4. Phoi Reply

    Just wanted to stop by and say I read your blog because my enjoyment for it is high. :) I like this theory. Makes sense. Have a great and safe trip!

    • Christine Ha Reply

      LOL! My enjoyment of your comment is also high. ;D

  5. 12450miles Reply

    Very interesting post! I've had Ssam Bar on my list for quite some time now… but I can't seem to pass up momofuku noodle bar when in the city. I'm addicted to the Ginger Scallion Noodles and the Shrimp Buns. This post makes me think that maybe I don't need to visit Ssam Bar.
    Have a BLAST in Korea… I agree with the comment about street food. I'm drooling just thinking about some of the great fare I ate when there last. (And my list for when we return next year is growing longer and longer.) For what it's worth… many of our adoptive parent friends have taken Daniel Gray's food tour while in Seoul and loved it. It may be worth looking into? Or at least checking out his blog "Seoul Eats"?

    • Christine Ha Reply

      Thanks for the tip on Daniel Gray. Will check it out. YOu should still try Ssam Bar and judge it for yourself. The menu changes frequently, so you might end up with a really good seasonal menu on the day you happen to go.

  6. Peter Karwacki Reply

    Hello Christine.
    I just stumbled across your blog, while looking for your cookbook which I understand is not yet in print.

    I'm waitin' for the braised pork belly recipe.

    My favorite recipes are reasonably basic, a vegetarian chilli made of swiss chard, black beans and squash for example.

    I like to make lasagne but it is a lot of work if you make the sauce on the same day.

    Pancakes are a favorite in my home on saturday mornings (served with sausages and fresh coffee)

    Something I enjoy making from time to time are home made cheese/potatoe mix filled perogies! hmmm.

    My son is studying for his masters in creative literature at Condordia. I'm going to point him to your blog as well.

    Besh wishes

    Pete

    • Christine Ha Reply

      What are perogies? I learn something new every day.Best wishes to your son with his vocation. More power to anyone in the creative/literary field!

      • Richard Riewer Reply

        Polish Dim Sum. Sort of.

        • wsamrazik Reply

          Pierogi – this is the correct plural Polish form for ravioli…. they are stuffed with different things, depending on the seasons (during the summer the filling is mostly made of fresh fruits, like strawberries, wild blueberries, or cherries and eaten with a dollop of fresh cream and sugar on top)… but for Christmas Eve, Poles traditionally stuff their pierogi with the mixture of cooked wild mushrooms, sauerkraut, and sauteed onions….. very, very yummy…..

  7. thomasstrome Reply

    Who would have thought that bacon strips can be use on beef stew recipes. I'd love to have this on catering services New York custom menu on my wife's birthday.

  8. Dave Reply

    I'm glad that another person is not quite as enamored with the David Chang empire. It feels like we're few and far between. It's not to say that the food they serve isn't excellent, but it's just that your Theory of Gastronomical Satisfaction (you should continue testing your theory and come out with an article on it) really comes shining through in the case of the Momofuku restaurants, where the price quota nowhere near matches what is served. I still feel French Laundry, and respectively anything in the Keller empire, reflects better what I think is fine dining. Have you had an opportunity yet to taste their offerings?

    As for where to go on your Asia trip, in Tokyo I think it's a must to visit Tsukiji and just have omakase at one of the sushi shops in the area. Everyone sings the praises of Sushi Dai but I haven't had it due to the lines– I had Sushi Bun and thought it was quite good. If you're willing to splurge on your sushi, Mitzutani in Ginza is where you should go. Unforgettable experience for me.

    • Christine Ha Reply

      It sounds like you know your food, too. Alas, I am already back in the States so cannot try your suggestions. :( I feel honored you respect my Theory. Now I feel extra smart. Time to set this cookbook and memoir aside and publish a study on it. Haha. The only Keller restaurant I've been to is Ad Hoc, but I hope to dine at French Laundry or Per Se one day. Lastly, speaking of the Momofuku restaurants, just to clarify, Ssam Bar is not considered fine dining. The way you speak, I assume you've been to the original Momofuku with the single Michelin star?

      • Dave Reply

        Publish the theory! Publish it I say!

        I'm eagerly awaiting your next journal post, hope you got good eats on the Asia trip. And yes, I had the pleasure of visiting the original Momofuku, which was excellent if you're there only for the food. I was speaking more along the lines of Ssam, Noodle, and Ma Peche (Milk Bar had some things that I thought were genuinely worth the trip) as being the culprits. For instance, I prefer Ad Hoc over Ssam with a group any day.

  9. Carl Reply

    The corn pie looks awesome! It's the first tim I ever read about someone making pie or cake out of corn, but I would definitely try it

    • Christine Ha Reply

      It was the highlight of our meal. I'm actually trying my hand at a roasted corn ice cream recipe today and have high hopes it will be delicious. Corn is naturally sweet so lends itself well to dessert.

  10. mihai Reply

    I looooove sea food. You really gave me craving for it with that photo

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