This week I thought I would share with you a story of two very different Korean rice cake dishes, at two very different restaurants. I don't know what the moral of the story is, only that the dishes could not have been more different. I'm still working on what that means, and maybe you can help me figure it out.
One week, I had the Spicy Pork Sausage and Rice Cakes dish ($18) at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. The rice cakes had been slightly toasted so their exteriors formed the beginnings of a rice cake pellicle. (Yes, yes, I know that pellicle is usually used to refer to the surface of meats, but I don't think that's fair to carbs.) The rice cakes came dressed in a sauce containing fermented chili and bean paste, soy sauce, and sugar, among other things. There were little bits of broken up sausage, and Sichuan peppercorns adorned the bowl.
It was careful, elegant cooking. The sauce was just a little bit spicy, the sauce sweet but not close to cloying. And said pellicle had been made golden brown, but not so much as to be truly crispy or crunchy. Even the rice cakes themselves were cut down so that each appeared as little barrels, as though too much of an unadulterated rice cake was a bad thing. It's not that I didn't like the dish—I did—but I wondered if there was such a thing as too much restraint, or too much care.
Two weeks later, I was sitting in Arang, a restaurant in Koreatown, eating a very different rice cakes dish, though the rice cakes themselves were the same long tubular kind. (One thing I can't understand is why Korean restaurants have the monopoly on the cylindrical rice cake shape. As it stands, the Chinese are very loyal to the flat oval variety, which has always puzzled me given the Chinese penchant for textural contrast. Now if I had my own Chinese restaurant, I would definitely use the cylindrical rice cakes over the flat kind, and I would prepare them like this.)
How to describe the Cheese Dukboki ($25)? It came sizzling in a round cast iron pan. The rice cakes had been mixed with calamari, then doused in a red sauce concoction much sweeter than the Momofuku version. Then the entire thing was covered with melted cheese: mild cheddar or dry mozzarella, I think.
Let me preface my comments with the proviso that not one element was bad. The rice cakes were charred. The calamari was tender. The sauce, while too sweet for my taste, was not terrible. And melted cheese. Who doesn't like melted cheese?
But taken together, the dish was just extraordinarily strange. Halfway through the meal, the layer of cheese cooled, congealing into a sort of lid that refused to budge from the top of the skillet. I plowed on nonetheless, and attempted to extract a rice cake or two from its cheesy tomb.
I was unsuccessful. The cheese strands clung to the rice cakes like chrysalis to larvae, so that it was impossible to eat a rice cake without getting hit with dairy.
Who would want their rice cakes, or their seafood, covered in cheese? The one time I clearly remember enjoying melted cheese with seafood, I was eating a Japanese fish cake that was tubular in shape, and in the middle of the tube was a lava-like extrusion of not just any cheese, but some mixture advertised as Camembert. It was zany and somehow very Japanese, and very delicious.
But this, this was just not doing it for me. It made me wonder who first dreamed up the rice cake/cheese combo, and what the target audience was. I don't think it's the hangover crowd, because hungover people still have their taste buds intact, and there are any number of deliciously edifying dishes to eat after a night of drinking that make more sense than this.
When our waiter came to clear the table, he didn't ask if we wanted our leftovers to go. Even though most of the cheese and the sauce and calamari were still there, albeit in a leaden mass. It made me a just a little sad, thinking of all the cheese-calamari-red sauce remains that the restaurant probably disposes of on a nightly basis.
Still, I was happy. Even though I would never order this dish again, I also ate it without feeling like it was a complete bust. Even in my distaste, part of me really cheered for this dish. It was just such a terrifically messed-up combination of foodstuffs. If you have to fail, fail grandly.
Momofuku Ssäm Bar
9 West 32nd Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10001 (map)