top 100: momofuku ssäm bar

Yes, it’s loud, crowded and incredibly cramped even by New York’s standards – and the byzantine reservation system is almost enough to cause you to throw up your hands and arrive hoping for a random cancellation – but in the end there is no denying the crazy-delicious nonchalance of what comes out of the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. It’s everything you’ve heard about and more: inventive, intelligent, insidious, and best of all, indifferent – which I mean in the best way possible. David Chang’s kitchen doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass for what’s fashionable or trending. (My god, they don’t even have a Twitter account, if you can believe) What Momofuku does have, however, is a culinary curiosity that asks you to either jump on board or get left behind. If you’re at all accustomed to the preciousness that too often comes with fine dining, this is an insouciant antidote and the gastronomic equivalent of a thrill ride. My table of eight started small with raw bites of striped bass flecked with pungent slices of kumquat. Spanish mackerel followed, cut with black garlic, lime, and a quixotic scattering of strawberries. Stimulated we moved on to what I like to think of as the steamed bun course: thick slices of meaty-fatty pork belly, cucumber rounds and hoisin stuffed into what looks like fluffy tacos; a plate of crispy, seasonal pickles; and BBQ buns, which turn that same slice of belly into a wholly different sensory experience: crispy pork, crunchy coleslaw and creamy smoked mayo colliding with finger licking results. Before the main event we downshift to a simple plate of ham. I’ve written about Benton’s hardcore bacon before yet lo and behold, the humble pig reaches its fatty, flavorful – and refined – apotheosis in a plate of paper-thin slices of Benton’s Smoky Mountain ham which dissolve on the tongue like the porcine equivalent of angel wings. And just when you think things couldn’t get any piggier, the Bo Ssäm arrives: a whole Niman Ranch pork shoulder slow roasted for eight hours in a brown sugar and salt rub. Ssäm is Korean for enclosed or wrapped, and the pork comes with bibb lettuce for wrapping, along with white rice, kimchi, ginger scallion sauce, korean bbq or ssäm sauce and a dozen oysters on the half shell. While you’re encouraged to eat it however you please, there is an art – and a pleasure – in going whole hog. Take a buttery leaf and spread it with a little of each condiment. Using the provided tongs grab a hunk of the tender meat, sprinkle with a little rice, toping with a raw oyster, wrap and devour. Yes, you read that right: top it with a raw oyster. A really good medium-sized oyster has a mouth feel similar to lardo. In the bo ssäm that creamy, colloidal texture – along with the spiky mollusk brine – elevates the simple wrap into a salty-sweet, juicy pocket rocket of porky goodness. You might approach the enterprise with a bit of gustatory hesitation but trust me, you’ll soon be shoveling it in with gusto. A good part of the fun also comes from watching your table mates as they experiment with assembling and eating their carnivorous creations. (tip: the messier the better) Ultimately the bo ssäm turns into an epic battle of the wills: man versus pork. I’m full and yet I keep eating and picking and wrapping because yes, I have no self-control, but also because it is that good.  Collectively the eight of us did some serious damage and still, the pork shoulder won hands down. (I took home a solid five pounds of leftover meat.) Stuffed to the gills it was difficult for anyone to fathom room for desert, yet when the waiter mentioned that pastry chef Christina Tosi was experimenting with an off-menu treat that night, I couldn’t resist insisting on one for the table: pancake cake, layered with raspberry jam and miso ganache, glazed with maple syrup and served with a black pepper butter sauce and strips of bacon. A seemingly playful send-up of breakfast, it was sick come to think of it. Sick and oh, so right.

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