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Momofuku Ssam: a review

biondanonima | Apr 19, 2008 06:46 AM

Today was day one of my little brother’s (LB) visit to NYC. After our trip to Arthur Ave (I'll post comments on the Outer Boroughs board later), we headed into the city for a little sightseeing and such before dinner at Momofuku Ssam. LB, being a pothead and generally a dirty hippie, very much enjoyed our stroll down St. Marks and even bought a couple of “souvenirs” that they apparently are not allowed to sell on the street in Chicago. Anyway, he started feeling a little peckish around 5pm, so we stopped into Cacio e Pepe on 2nd Ave. for a couple of glasses of wine and some cheese (all of which was fine but rather overpriced, IMHO). We then wandered around a bit more and finally made our way to Momofuku around 7pm.

We definitely got there at the perfect time, as there was no wait – we had our choice of a small table very near the front or seats at the bar. LB commented immediately that this would NOT be the place to bring our parents – too trendy, too loud, too crowded, uncomfortable chairs. All true, but it was a perfect place for him. Anyway, we chose to sit at the bar, ordered a glass of wine for LB and settled in to check out the menu. It was all familiar to me, but LB hadn’t checked it out on line, so he was a little confused by all of the options. I have to admit, even I wasn’t sure which dishes would be entrée-sized and which wouldn’t, and the prices weren’t necessarily much help in this regard. We decided to start with the hamachi from the raw bar and the steamed pork buns, then sample the sweetbreads, the lamb belly, and a skate wing special that was brand new this evening. We left the pacing to the kitchen and prepared to be wowed.

The hamachi came out first – four sashimi-sized pieces folded on a bed of edamame-wasabi puree, with cured seaweed flakes sprinkled on top and a few whole edamame strewn about. Beautiful presentation and a delicious dish. The edamame puree was silky, sweet and light, with just the right amount of wasabi heat to accentuate the fish without overpowering. The seaweed flakes added the touch of salt that brought it all together.

Next came the pork buns – two buns, each with two slices of pork and some thinly sliced cucumbers and scallions inside. Again, delicious, although I felt there was a bit too much hoisin sauce on mine, which obscured the flavor of the pork somewhat. I pulled a piece of pork out to taste on its own, and it was fatty, tender and amazing. The server offered hot sauce, which I added to excellent effect – the spicy tang helped cut the sweet hoisin a little.

The skate special came next – two good sized wings, crusted with panko and rice flour and shallow fried, on a bed of cod roe congee, with garlic chips and baby greens on top. This dish did not impress. It tasted fine, but the skate was nothing special – I’ve made equally good, crispy skate at home. The congee was fairly bland, with no discernable roe flavor. The real problem was the combination – the fried skate combined with the heavy, creamy congee was just too rich and completely obscured the delicate flavor of the fish. The garlic chips helped a bit, but the dish was really begging for some hint of citrus or other acid to lighten things up – yuzu, perhaps. I’m not sure there’s anything in the world that would really marry congee with fried fish, though!

Our last two choices came together – 4 small chunks of deep fried lamb belly with baby greens, violet mustard, olives and cipolline onions on one plate, and a generous portion of grilled sweetbreads with salted lime and pickled vegetables on the other. I’ve never seen sweetbreads presented like this before – they were cut into very thin strips and then grilled. They were tasty enough with the salted lime squeezed over, but I wouldn’t order the dish again. The thinly cut pieces got a little dried out and lacked the velvety texture I associate most with sweetbreads. This dish was also something I could have made at home (and possibly done a better job with). The pickled vegetables were a nice accompaniment, especially the chunks of “Tokyo Turnip.” However, the lamb belly made up for any shortcomings the other dishes might have had. The chunks were impossibly crispy, and as we bit through the crust we experienced a heavenly burst of luscious lamb fat and succulent meat. LB and I looked at each other after the first bite and simultaneously said “WOW.” The violet mustard was a perfect accompaniment and quite complex – the mustard flavor was subtle and blended nicely with a floral flavor and a hint of maybe cinnamon? The olives and onions added salt and sweet. Amazing. By far the best dish of the night!

After all of that, we were WAY too full for dessert, although I really wanted the brown butter shortbread. Next time, because I will certainly return, even though not every dish was a winner. Our bill before tip (and including one glass of wine) was $100, which I felt was fairly reasonable given all that we ate. I was frustrated, however, with the inconsistency in portion size between “entrees.” As far as I could tell, the skate, sweetbreads and lamb belly were all meant to be “entrees” – they were all around $20 and they came from the same side of the menu (except for the special, obviously). However, while the skate was very generously portioned, the sweetbreads were a fairly average portion and the lamb was quite a small portion. If I had ordered just the lamb as an entrée, I would have left hungry for sure. Anyway, I wouldn’t call any of what I ate life-changing, but the lamb was definitely impressive and I look forward to trying the rest of the menu!

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