“Approach everything as if it’s a work in progress,” two of my friends advised. Both regulars in David Chang’s momoverse*, they were trying to explain why the food at Chang’s restaurants can be uneven.
Where do I get publicists like that?
As my friends pointed out, the cooks in momoverse don’t deny or hide the fact that there is very little pre-menu development.
Dishes get “demo’ed” on the menu. They’re refined, tweaked, and adjusted over time. And more than any other restaurant operation I know, diners in momoverse seem to be the willing guinea pigs in this ongoing, interactive, experiment.
So, depending on your sensibilities and when you experience a momo dish, it could be a wreck, or a winner.
The infrequency of my visits to momoverse disqualifies me from fairly evaluating the evolutionary track of Chang’s dishes. So I can’t say whether or not the bowl of “Fried Baby Artichokes” that I recently tried at momofuku ssäm bar will improve with time ($14). Or, whether I caught a few of momo head pastry chef Christina Tosi’s desserts in a particularly primordial state.
That artichoke dish was good, but it might easily be better. A creamy lash of salt (pistachio), a bright flash of acid (lemon?), and a crispy vehicle for it all – the right elements were present, but perhaps not in the right proportions or intensity. The bottarga’s usually pungent character was completely obliterated by everything else in the dish. The acid was a bit too strong. I sought refuse in those wonderfully nutty slices of sunchokes.
For me, Tosi’s “Grapefruit Cream Pie” was a wreck ($7). It was strident and directionless, a wedge of sugar assaulted by a salty black sesame paste. I understand that pitting sweet against salty is Tosi’s cause célèbre. But this one took it to the level of schtick. Visually striking though it may have been, that pie had no character or contour whatsoever. Like the blaring “music” at ssäm bar, it was an indiscriminate blast of flavor.**
Dishes like this one, and cookies, like Tosi’s famous milk bar “Compost Cookie,” make me think that she likes shocking her customers with sweetness. That cookie – adequately named for its snack aisle amalgam – was an overload of butter and sugar.
Better was the “Blueberry Cream Cookie” at milk bar, whose “milkiness” gave it an almost chicken broth-like savoriness. Odd? I thought so. It lived for those intermittent, tart pockets of dried blueberries.
The best milk bar cookie I sampled was the “Chocolate Chocolate Cookie.” Still too sweet, this mudpie was very moist, very rich, very dark, and gritty with salt. Crass? Undoubtedly. But, sheepishly, addictive. (The cookies at milk bar are sold at $1.85 per cookie, or 3 for $5).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Tosi’s “Thai Iced Tea Parfait” dessert was balanced, delicate almost ($9). The savory component was more subtle and thoughtfully included. The textures were great – a tumble of granola-like “almond tea crunch” straddled a creamy dollop of lemony mascarpone and a silky bar of iced tea parfait. This was a great dessert.
The parts to the “Cherry Mochi” dessert were greater than their sum ($7). A deliciously honest St. Andre’s sheeps’ milk ice cream, musky and natural; a beautiful cherry syrup; tender morsels of mochi, and a hillock of shredded phyllo – together, they were a confusing bunch. Ironically, I think the mochi was completely superfluous.
The “Steamed Buns” seemed larger, fatter (and fattier) this time ($9). They were delicious.
With a full house at midnight, Lois, Clark, and I managed to snag a table in less than 10 minutes. The service was efficient and friendly.
To read about the other restaurants I visited on this trip to New York, CLICK HERE.
momofuku ssäm bar
207 Second Avenue
New York, New York 10003
East Village: 207 Second Avenue
Midtown: 15 West 56th Street
* Here, I use the term to mean the collective family of restaurants owned by David Chang, which includes momofuku noodle bar, momofuku ssäm bar, milk bar, momofuku ko, and má pêche.
** A more successful example of Tosi’s salty-sweet dynamism was the “Pear Sorbet” that I had last year (CLICK HERE and scroll to the bottom). It was also a head-banging burst of flavor, yet it managed to have body, shape, and dimension. Sophisticated? Hardly. Like the Grapefruit Cream Pie, it was an active tug-of-war between salty and sweet. But every bite was interesting, addictive.