January 31, 2018
For the longest time Momofuku Ssam Bar was my favorite restaurant in New York. 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 textures and flavors swirling through my mouth made me deliriously happy. I went on to pork buns, rice sticks with spicy sausage, crisp Brussels sprouts drenched in fish sauce and chiles, knowing I’d come home.
I loved the atmosphere too – the raucous noise of the place, the way strangers exchanged food, the offbeat wine list. For years my son and I went there as often as we could, and the restaurant never disappointed us. I’ll never forget the night the chef sent out a new dish he was experimenting with – curved little bowls containing litchis topped with an icy riesling gelee and pine nut brittle. He came to the table holding a chunk of frozen foie gras and began shaving it, pretty pink curls falling into the dish. I took a bite and the cold shards of foie gras came together into something warm, rich and round, swirling around like magic in the mouth.
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.
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 it’s 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 my mind. Those spicy shrimp up top, crunching happily inside their shells, with floppy slices of rice cake, lots of pungent sauce, and a few soft, tiny potatoes. When the waiter arrived with tiny condensed towels and poured water over them, we watched as they grew larger, 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.
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