Farewell to A Favorite
Also: an old menu, a terrific new restaurant and a simple spice blend I'm in love with.
Momfuku Ssam Bar will close next week. That makes me sad.
The first time I went to Momofuku, the original with its ten tiny seats, only three were occupied. The place was brand new, and the young chef stood watching as I inhaled every drop of that fantastic bowl of ramen. Then he brought out another dish. “It’s a ssam,” he said, “what do you think?”
Not much, was the answer; it struck me as a sadly clunky Korean burrito. So when Ssam Bar opened a couple years later, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.
But I went anyway, just for science. Turns out there wasn’t a ssam in sight (unless you counted the hideously expensive bo ssam that you had to order in advance). Instead, there were wildly inventive dishes. The first bite felt as if David Chang had reached inside my head, seen my secret fantasies and conjured up the perfect dish for me. Weird and wonderful, whipped tofu with huge orange lobes of Santa Barbara sea urchin and giant black tapioca pearls was not for everyone, but the flavors swirled through my mouth, the textures did little pirouettes, and I grew deliriously happy.
I loved everything about the place. The raucous noise, the way perfect strangers exchanged food, the quirky wine list. My teenage son and I went as often as we could (my husband never appreciated the place), and were never disappointed. One night the chef arrived with a new dish he’d been playing with –litchis topped with an icy Riesling gelée and pine nut brittle. He plunked the bowls down, picked up a grater and soon pretty pink curls of frozen foie gras were raining into the dish. I took a bite, closed my eyes, and waited for the cold shards to come together. It tasted very much like magic.
Nick liked the restaurant so much that he came home from college to celebrate his 21st birthday there. It was very late when he and his friends made their way downtown to devour pork buns, rice sticks with spicy sausage, and endless plates of sliced ham.
Just before midnight his girlfriend noticed that one of his favorite bands, Yeasayer, was sitting just a few stools down. She went over to whisper that Nick was about to turn 21, and as midnight struck the band began to sing. As they improvised a raucous version of “Happy Birthday” the entire restaurant joined in.
I loved the food at Ssam Bar. But what I loved even more was the way it transformed New York City into a warm and welcoming village. I’m really going to miss it.
La Briffe is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
My Dinner at Ssam Bar, 2018
For the longest time Momofuku Ssam Bar was my favorite New York restaurant. For years my son and I went there as often as we could, and the restaurant never disappointed us.
Nick went off to college, one by one all the people we knew at the restaurant left for other adventures, and slowly – I’m not quite sure why – I stopped going. Maybe because the restaurant, with its backless chairs and throbbing sound was never a place where Michael could be comfortable. But last night, celebrating Nick’s birthday, we decided to go back for the first time in years.
It was like the first time. A little less raucous (how did they mute the sound?) and considerably more comfortable (there are backs on the chairs now, more space between tables). But the food was pure edible excitement.
White on white. Fluke tartare. Kimchi ice. Daikon. Icy fireworks exploding in the mouth. Gentle flavors. Texture. Texture. Texture. I found myself hoarding the dish, reluctant to relinquish a single bite.
The perfect solution for people (me) who can never get enough caviar. Who could have imagined these Cantonese buns, with their soft pillowy texture and aching blandness, would be the perfect foil for sturgeon roe? Or that said roe could stand up to a bacon-infused ranch dressing? Love the smoked egg yolk, and the crunch of the cucumber.
The most delicious ribs, falling from the bone with a complex smudge of sauce tasting of bonito flakes, kombu, nori and maybe mirin? It reminded me of the sauce on the great takoyaki I ate on the street in Osaka – and this is the way I want my ribs from now on.
Cauliflower disguised as Stonehenge, a great manly monolith of vegetable drenched in lardo and ham vinaigrette.
And then, another dish that seemed conjured from inside my mind. Spicy shrimp, crunching happily inside their shells, with floppy slices of rice cake, rivers of pungent sauce, and a smattering of tiny potatoes. When the waiter arrived with what looked like little white pills- condensed towels- he poured water over them and we watched them swell up, laughing as we mopped our sticky fingers.
The room feels happy. The wine list is intriguing. I can’t stop thinking about that 1982 Riesling, which lost much of its sweetness and gained character with age. “A wine that’s older than me,” said Nick, taking a grateful sip.
There are still so many dishes to try. I can’t wait to go back – for the skate roasted in banana leaf, the foie gras taiyaki, the uni over rice. Or, frankly, for anything else chef Max Ng cares to dream up. There’s nothing like finding an old friend and discovering it’s gotten even better since the last time that you met.
I love squid: it's delicious, sustainable, inexpensive and easy. When I first started cooking squid you had to remove the quill-like shell (unlike other shellfish, it's on the inside), take out the ink sac (right behind the eyes) and the beak, clean out the interior and peel off the pretty lavender skin. But now most squid comes pre-cleaned so you don't have to bother with any of that, which means it makes an almost-instant dinner.
Wandering past the seafood case the other day, the squid seemed to be calling out to me. I bought some, took it home, and made this completely satisfying supper. (The recipe is very loosely adapted from one in Bruce Cost's Big Bowl Cookbook.
Spicy Squid Noodles with Black Beans and Chiles
1/2 pound cleaned squid
8 ounces ramen noodles, preferably fresh (such as Sun Ramen)
splash sesame oil
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 inch knob ginger, shredded
5 scallions, white parts diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, chopped
2 teaspoons salted Chinese black beans, rinsed and chopped
1 - 2 tablespoons peanut or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
Cut the squid bodies into 1 inch rings. If the tentacles are large, cut them in half.
Bring a large pot of water to a furious boil, drop in the squid, bring the water back to a boil and cook for 30 seconds. Remove and quickly run under cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain, run under cold water to stop and toss with the sesame oil. Set aside.
Mix the chicken stock, sugar, oyster sauce and soy sauce.
Combine ginger, scallions, garlic, jalapeno and black beans.
Heat a wok until a drop of water skitters across the surface. Add the oil, then toss in ginger, scallions, garlic, jalapeno and black beans and toss about for 30 seconds or so until the fragrance fills the air.
Add the chicken stock mixture, bring to a boil, and cook for about a minute. Add squid and wine, toss about for another minute. Add the noodles, toss again and serve.
While we’re contemplating Momofuku….
You probably know Marc Murphy from the reality tv show, Chopped. A few years ago I had the pleasure of spending a week traveling with a Marc and a group of other chefs. He turned out to be wonderful company - smart, thoughtful, humble and great fun. (I’ll be posting the article I wrote about that trip soon.)
He’s also a great cook, and he’s just collaborated with Burlap and Barrel to create a trio of herbal blends. I like them all, but the one I appreciate most is Chef’s Best Friend - a perfect combination of salt and pepper. I find myself reaching for it again and again. I think you will too.
Last night we screened the trailer for Food and Country, the film I made with director Laura Gabbert, in Hudson. You can find the trailer here.
What did I like best? Well, everything really. But if I have to pick one dish, it’s this pavé of potatoes from Morningstar Farms with smoked local trout and salmon roe. In some ways it reminded me of the kind of dishes they used to serve at Ssam Bar - surprising, filled with unexpected flavors and tangled textures. Imagine the crispness of potato cuddling up against the softness of creme fraiche and accented by the pop of caviar. One final touch: the snap of purslane. .