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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the best of breakfasts (spicy edition)

This being the UK tradition generally dictates that breakfast at a B&B is equally important, if not more so, than the bed. To be considered proper it must be cooked, too: eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and invariably some type of fried bread. But if you look at the small letters at the bottom of the breakfast menu at Harbour View B&B you can also opt for a Thai Breakfast, which turns out to be a mutable thing, dependent on the whims of the market and the chef for that matter. (This being an island off the coast of an island off the coast of continental Europe, creative substitutions for certain Thai ingredients must often be made) After expressing an interest in Thai food, however, my hostess, Swan Tomkinson, took a certain vested interest in me. “It’s spicy, you know,” she told me on the first morning, trying to warn me off a plate of scrambled eggs with rice and curried rashers. “I love Thai,” I countered. “The spicier the better.” And with that she recognized a kindred spirit: “I will cook you real Thai food.” Over the next five days a challenge ensued. Each day I would ask for something unattainable for breakfast the following morning - green papaya salad one day, pad prik king another – and she would counter with a pretty good approximation, for example substituting cucumbers in place of the green papaya and adding an extra dose of the Thai basil which grows prodigiously in her garden. On day four I was surprised with a plate of larb, the spicy ground pork salad popular in northeastern Thailand. “I’ve been craving larb but had nobody to share it with,” Swan confided, revealing a pang of longing every stranger in a strange land must eventually feel. “Cooking for people makes me happy,” she was quick to add. “Especially food that they like.” Like Thai, I gestured, pushing a plate of freshly picked herbs out of the way, inviting Swan to join me in the most unexpected – and tastiest –  breakfast of my life. “One time, a Russian couple came into the kitchen as I was cooking dinner for me and Alan,” she began. “I was making Beef Stroganoff and they said the smell reminded them of home. ‘Could we have the leftovers for breakfast,’ they asked me.” She laughed at the memory. “Yes, I said, I will make you Beef Stroganoff for breakfast.”

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live blog: love at first fry

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eggs to order

Even with expectations of a Spartan culinary spread, the bush breakfast promised during this morning’s game drive sounded too cool to pass up – and well worth the extra-early rise. A thermos of coffee arrived at my tent with the sunrise and next thing you know we were off in search of wildebeest. “In search” might be a bit of a misnomer, however. Across the river from Sala’s Camp a mega-herd had come to graze, which made the whole enterprise less White Hunter, Black Heart and more Jeeves and Wooster as we, in effect, toured the great herd. Nevertheless, driving in a hundred thousand-strong herd of animals brings is its own thrills and sense of adventure. Alighting on a large rock in the middle of the herd, the driver and tracker set up a proper table, chairs, a wash basin and I breakfasted on fresh fruit salad, yogurt, muffins and good, strong coffee amidst the most unbelievable surroundings. When the driver asked me how I liked my eggs I thought he was joking – until I noticed the sweet smell of bacon and sausage coming from the direction of the Land Rover, where they had hooked up a small gas stove. Who was I to argue? I went for two: sunny-side up, please.

 

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the gift of pork

To my mind, nothing says love like the smell of bacon.  So it’s kind of ironic that having eschewed red meat for about eight weeks, a four-pound box of the world’s best arrived at my desk this morning. Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham out of Tennessee is as artisanal as it gets: hickory-smoked by hand in small batches using a little wood-stove smokehouse. It’s the same process I experimented with last summer on my roof – without fear of the fire department unexpectedly showing up. Seitan be gone – I’m salivating in anticipation of a weekend with this little piggy.

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