$25 is certainly not a trifling amount to spend on lunch, especially in these uncertain economic days. You could feed two and a half Midtown Luncher's for that price, which does not even include tax or tip. But having said that I don't think that in the absolute terms of taste and flavor, of inventiveness of recipe and freshness of ingredient you can't do much better than the lunch prix fixe at Momofuku Ssam Bar. You would have to spend twice the amount to get as much as the menu affords one.
For $25, you get to choose one of three different appetizers, one of three main courses, and one of two desserts. Why only two desserts? I have no idea, but I learned long ago to go with the flow at Momofuku and not to ask too many questions. Here are your options:
Kimchi apple salad is served with arugula and crispy pigs jowls over a generous smear of maple-infused Labne cheese. The apples are firm, crispy and sugary; the fiery kimchi and salty, smoky jowls providing the perfect foil to this sweetness with the creamy yogurt like cheese rounding out the palate.
The seasonal pickle plate comes with a diverse variety of vegetables—carrots, ramps, mushrooms, a spicy kimchi and the pickles that grace the famed Momofuku pork buns.
Speaking of pork buns, they are an option. Despite being arguably the most identifiable dish on the menu at both Momofuku Ssam and Noodle bar, the little grease bombs were a last-minute addition to the menu. If you've never had them you really should try them at Noodle Bar; the recipe is the same but the pork at Noodle Bar always seem to be crisper with a darker bronzing. I also think they pair best with ramen, which is not offered at Ssam. I am sure they'll always remain a fixture at Ssam but I feel the menu has moved so far beyond the restaurants initial concept that the pork bun is speaking an antiquated vernacular. The food has become more serious and less incidental.
The Main Course
Rice cakes comes served with a fiery Bolognese-type sauce littered with Chinese broccoli, garlic, and hot peppers. I imagine the finely minced meat used is pork but the sauce is so strong that it is hard to tell. The last time I ordered this, I was twice warned by the staff to watch out for the peppers. After a nibble, which I had to do, I found the warning warranted. Apparently few people eat them, the last person my waiter remembers finishing them all was a model from Thailand. She sounds hot. Literally.
Perfectly grilled Branzini, latticed with pronounced hash marks is aided and abetted by beans and pistachio nuts. While the other main courses on offer are quite substantial the fish is served in a diminutive portion. Perfect if you want a light lunch but you will get more bang for your buck with the other choices.
A relatively new creation, the brisket over vermicelli is Chef Tien Ho's nod to Vietnam. It is a lovely dish: tender brisket, crunchy bean sprouts, and silky noodles bathe in an anise-infused broth. I found the broth a tad watery until I mixed in some of the accompanying hoisin sauce. The dish really came together at this point. The earthy gaminess of the sprouts and the beef contrasted beautifully with the burnt sweetness of the hoisin.
Blondie Pie with cashew butter offers a gooey, nutty, creamy, crunchy finish to the meal. The pie is quite dense and heavy and the crust which seems to be about 50% butter is decadently luxurious.
PB & J. Concord grape meets panna cotta over a crunchy, peanut butter granola biscuit, strewn with saltine crackers. What I love about this dessert is what keeps me going back to Momofuku Milk Bar—sweetness balanced by savory. Here, the saltiness of the cracker perfectly counters the syrupy richness of the grape.
Those are your options. I recommend you take a friend or two and have yourselves a tasting menu. Or if you have had no luck getting a Ko reservation you could have yourself a six course lunch with two desserts for $75. Whether you dine alone or with a group I think you will enjoy the lunch prix fixe at Momofuku Ssam, $25 may not be cheap but I still think it is a bargain.