Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Avenue, New York NY 10003 (at 13th Street,
map); 212-254-3500; momofuku.com
Service: Casual bar service
Must Haves: Pork buns, spicy rice cakes, grapefruit cream pie
Price: $25 for three courses
Notes: Lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m., 7 days
It used to be that Momofuku Noodle Bar had a menu that was seemingly stagnant, revolving mostly around noodles and pork buns, and that Momofuku Ssam Bar had a menu that seemed to change almost nightly. I used to go to Noodle Bar for comfort and familiarity, and to Ssam when I wanted something new and challenging. But then came the three stars in the New York Times and the menu seemed to grind to an evolutionary dead stop—changing little in the year and a half after Frank Bruni's review dropped. In retrospect it became apparent that David Chang was not resting on his laurels but rather was working on Ma Peche, and Tien Ho wasn't developing anything new at Ssam because he was busy constructing a complete menu for the new venture.
With Ma Peche open, it seems that Ssam Bar has started to evolve once more, now under the guidance of chefs de cuisine Tim Maslow and Ryan Miller. While there are some familiar staples on the lunch special, there are also some new additions, and the three course meal remains a bargain at $25.
The pork buns remain on the menu, as they probably always will.
The spicy honeycomb tripe comes with ginger, scallion, celery "noodles," and pickled tomatoes. If you don't like, or have never had tripe, this might be the dish to change your mind or win you over. The tripe comes in delicate, tender slivers and had a clean flavor.
A meaty slab of corned beef terrine comes with a creamy fried egg sauce.
A hold over from the Tien Ho era, and a dish that I think is as classic as the pork buns, the spicy rice cakes remain on the lunch menu. I hope it is always a part of the menu at Ssam Bar. Served with a fiery Bolognese-type sauce littered with Chinese broccoli, garlic, and hot peppers, the crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-within rice cakes make up a perfectly composed dish.
A newer addition is the diver scallops with XO sauce, wilted bok choy and some pungent black garlic.
Despite three options for each of the main courses, the dessert options are limited to just two. They are both more refined than the offerings at the adjacent Milk Bar; they would not be out of place on the Momofuku Ko menu. The grapefruit cream pie comes with a Ritz cracker crust and a generous smear of black sesame cream. The Thai iced tea parfait gets a tangy lemon mascarpone sprinkled with almond tea crunch.
The lunch menu at Ssam Bar has changed enough that if you haven't been in awhile, you will be sure to find something new. On the other hand, it does retain some of the classic dishes that have become so much a part of the restaurant. I now get comfort, familiarity and something new and challenging from the same menu. Something I used to have to go top two restaurants to achieve.