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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top 100: sfoglia

The lighting at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side is both a blessing and a curse. In one regard it’s a minor miracle: the votive-filled, semi-subterranean restaurant manages to refine even the homeliest of profiles into a vision as serene as one of Giotto angels. Yet that self-same light is also a curse upon every amateur food photographer or blogger armed with equipment little more sophisticated than last season’s iPhone. As I fall into both of those latter categories, I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust my word about the food and accept the few images I was able to pilfer from the restaurant’s website. Then again the unfussy, casual elegance of this week’s dining experience is a sure sign that I’ll be returning to photograph the warm embrace of Sfoglia’s den of deliciousness again and again – preferably post-workout. Now that you know the happy ending I can share the evening’s irritating beginning, which didn’t begin nearly as felicitously: in the cold, cramped entryway the host was simultaneously handling future reservations, checking coats, and acting as sommelier to a four-top that wanted a bottle of wine while they waited for their table. My initial impression of an improvised hot mess was only reinforced upon sitting when the waiter asked about water before quickly disappearing. What I really wanted was a glass of Dolcetto but I had to wait, patiently nibbling olives in silent frustration. By the time the waiter finally returned to ask if there were any menu questions, I was hungry, and so quickly ordered a glass of wine, antipasti della casa, and the cavatelli, which sounded intriguing as it came with mustard greens pesto and breadcrumbs.  My partner in carbs went for paccheri, a floppy, tubular pasta with pork shoulder and fennel pollen, plus a side of brussel sprouts for good measure. The waiter repeated it all back to us, getting it wrong. Then he repeated it once again, this time getting the wine wrong, before giving an offhand nod and walking away. Before I could give sarcastic voice to the exchange a plate of bread arrived and we tore at it like a pair of hungry cats. The bread at Sfoglia has a cult following. They ship it now, as well as sell it at the restaurant. The crispy thin crust belies a pillowy warm inside which just happens to be an ideal vehicle for sopping up a flavorful plate oil. When the antipasti arrives with my wine I’m glad we decided to share:  two big crostini smeared with whipped ricotta and sea salt share the plate with a mound of peppery arugula and smoked trout and a salad of shredded radicchio and apple that’s unbelievably sweet and creamy and salty all at once. We begin to debate our favorite, coming close to those embarrassing acts of plate scraping and fork-licking. Who cares that our waiter is a dolt, or that we had to wait in the cold for a table? We are here, in this warm haven where simple ingredients being accorded a respectful finesse and we’ve still got two courses left to go. The pastas are, of course, equally memorable: tender pork shoulder, rich in tomato, has the proper ratio of acid to fat, making the perfect foil for wide tubes of the ribbon-like paccheri. Strangely the tiny cavatelli look like grubs – a sensation further enhanced by a topping of crunchy, butter-soaked breadcrumbs. Yet mixed with a pesto of bitter mustard greens it makes for a dish so savory that I’m glad it doesn’t come in a trough or I’d have to make a right spectacle of myself. A happy accident occurs when the waiter absent-mindedly stops by thinking he forgot to tell us about the special deserts that require pre-ordering.  (He did.) Once I hear the words “bread pudding,” I go deaf and don’t need to hear another word. Somehow I manage to continue shoveling cavatelli in my mouth while signaling that yes,the pastry chef should fire up some bread pudding and oh, by the way, more wine, more wine! It’s like being in one of those collegiate stoner dreams: the taste of everything passing my lips is elevated to such a degree that each bite takes on new levels of deliciousness. A heaping bowl of rum-soaked pudding is the night’s crowning glory, managing to at once be both a proper pudding and a wonderfully light finish to the meal. It’s a testament to the kitchen that I’ve managed to have a generous feed and yet I don’t feel stuffed. In the wrong hands an evening at Sfoglia could easily turn into a bacchanal of Falstaffian proportions. Or do I mean the right hands? I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be back to put that theory to the test.

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