I thought Ben Leventhal of Eater was crazy when he predicted the Times' Frank Bruni would bestow three stars on David Chang's Ssäm Bar in his re-review (the original was in early 2007 for two stars).
But Ben deserves props—he nailed it. I always thought the food deserved three stars, even with lunch burritos still on the menu. It's the service at Ssäm Bar that I thought would get in the way of the three-bagger. Not that it's bad. It's just ultra-casual, and I didn't think Bruni would give three stars to an ultra-casual restaurant.
I also didn't understand Bruni's comment on the pricing. Yes, you can get two small plates for twenty dollars—sans wine, tax, and tip—but I don't know any diners who have left there without spending more. I'm sounding much more churlish than I mean to sound here, because I too love and admire the almost uniformly and seriously delicious food at Ssäm Bar.
Bruni acknowledges the oft-idiosyncratic shortcomings of the restaurant; the no coffee or tea policy; the rushed feeling (which I often feel too when eating here with one other person); and the near-deafening noise level that often causes me to sound hoarse at the end of the meal (because I've just spent an hour talking over the din).
I would add one more: the backless stools are just not all that comfortable.
But in the end, Bruni decides the restaurant deserves three stars for the best reasons imaginable: "I've circled back because eating at Ssäm feels so unencumbered, honest and joyful, and because I can't stop reflecting on the daring and importance of Mr. Chang's work there."
In its own way, Bruni's review is a very gutsy one born of his very real passion for Ssäm Bar's food. So the real props here don't belong to Ben Leventhal, but to Chang, chef Tien Ho, and general manager/wine director Cory Lane. And yes, to Bruni as well.
What do the rest of the serious eaters think?
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