Two words I never thought I'd see on a menu: ham cream. But we'll get to that later...
Every year when the New York Magazine "Where to Eat" issue hits newsstands, I get a rush of food-frenzy anxiety, suddenly desperate to visit all the hot spots, all the best new restaurants, all the hardest-to-get tables. Of course, since every other New Yorker is like-minded, there are no available tables at any of those New! Hot! Spots! Which is when I become thankful for the more democratic (albeit frustrating) no-reservations policy at certain restaurants which allow anyone with the patience and/or free time to dine in their midst.
My friend Rebecca and I decided to try for an early Saturday night dinner at either Momofuku Noodle or Momofuku Ssam Bar, in the East Village, pending the wait at David Chang's two restaurants. We arrived at Momofuku Ssam (our first choice, as the menu seems more geared towards dinner than the noodle bar) around 7:30 and were immediately seated at the cramped but sleek bar, right in front of the kitchen window (a spot I always like). And, as crowded as the bar space is, I appreciated being in close proximity to other diners because I was curious about many of the dishes and liked being able to scan around and even ask our neighbors for ordering tips. (They might not have liked that as much.)
My first tip: get the pork buns. I love pork buns in almost all of their manifestations, because it's hard to go wrong with dough and pork, but the pillow-y dough and pork belly were delicious. My second tip: as enticing as all the pork dishes are, don't overlook the raw bar. We split an order of scallops that were described by our waiter as 'sexy', and while that may be pure up-selling hooey, the scallops were pretty sexy: thinly sliced and served with pickled cherries and tart watercress. We also had an order of fried brussel sprouts that come crispy and spicy, courtesy of chili, mint and fish sauce. I didn't try any of the larger pork dishes (and was especially interested in the clay pot dish) but enjoyed the hangar steak ssam - Bibb lettuce do-it-yourself wraps with marinated beef, kimchi and ginger scallion.
I had two glasses of rose Cava which went especially well with the scallops and the pork, but on my next visit to Momofuku would like to sample some of the sakes. And, on my next visit - if I can round up a group to go along with me - I'd like to try the Bo Ssam: the whole Berkshire pork butt, slow roasted in sugar, soy sauce and wine.
But now for the aforementioned Ham Cream: Rebecca and I looked over the brief dessert menu and were immediately struck by the Amish cheddar shortcake with apples and ham cream. What's ham cream? we asked our waiter. Well, he said, it's whipped cream with some ham flavor in it. Or, so it's exactly what it sounds like, we said. Yep, he told us. But he recommended the dessert, telling us how the savory cream and the caramelized apples played off one another. We took his recommendation, and we were very, very glad to have done so. The shortbread was actually more of a biscuit - softer than I think of shortbread being - and had just the right amount of sharp cheddar bite to it, the apples were diced and sauteed, and the ham cream was light and rich with a slight savory flavor to it, more smoky tham ham-y, and altogether, it was delicious.
Our total bill, which included 4 drinks, 4 dishes and 2 desserts, came to $112 before tip. Momofuku Ssam Bar (212 254 3500)is located on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 13th Street, and accepts all major credit cards. Reservations are not accepted (unless you are ordering the Bo Ssam, which must be pre-ordered). They are open for both lunch and dinner, and serve until 2am.