In case anyone has wondered what kind of meal really makes me happy, read on.
I am a fan of all things David Chang. His cookbook, which could double as a bookend, holds my attention like a Greg Iles thriller, and the index of recipes conjures up a fantasy of meals to be created.
Each time I go to New York City, I try to eat at one of the restaurants in his empire. So far I have been unsuccessful securing a spot a KO, the tiny 12 seat counter that features a very expensive prix-fixe lunch or dinner, but I am always delighted to visit either Momofuku Saam Bar or the Noodle Bar. (Chang is also chef at Ma Peche in the Chambers Hotel, but its menu is not as off-the-wall or exciting as the original two.)
So, on a recent trip to NYC I found myself at Momofuku Saam Bar to revel in some of my favorites, though we did venture further into the menu this time to try some new items. What I love is that every dish is different and more interesting than the one before and, most importantly, Chang’s creations aren’t what I would usually make for my family. Yes, I have made the Bo Saam dinner (a slow roasted pork butt with kimchee, special sauces and lettuce for wrapping), but the only dishes from the House of Chang that usually grace our dinner table are vegetable dishes like the charred Brussel sprouts with mint, fish sauce and Rice Krispies (the recipe calls for puffed rice of some kind, but Rice Krispies are a suitable alternative).
We started our lunch with the mussels. Assuming that we expected the mussels to get the traditional treatment of hot broth, our server explained that these are brined and served cold. He was right, that is not what I would have expected, but we ordered them anyway and we were all enthralled. They were served in a Mason jar, in the pickling juice, mixed with kohlrabi, wild spinach and shishito peppers. Grilled slices of bread accompany the dish to serve as a vessel for the mussels and that glorious liquid.
Next came Market Greens with XO sauce. I had mistakenly assumed that meant lettuce greens–rather the bowl was filled with wild greens, including ramps, which made it far more interesting. XO sauce is a spicy mixture of garlic, chiles, dried shrimp, ginger and grapeseed oil. Sweet, salty and spicy, it packed a punch, but didn’t overwhelm the greens and provided a pleasing counterpoint.
No visit is complete without the steamed pork buns with cucumber, scallions and hoisin, and they didn’t disappoint.
Next up, another new item. David Chang has turned his focus from pork to duck, and there are many renditions of it on the menu, including steamed buns with pulled duck, duck dumplings and duck sandwiches. We opted for the rotisserie duck over rice with chive pancake, ginger scallion sauce and lettuce leaves for wrapping. It’s essentially a riff on his Bo Saam spread which features the pork butt I alluded to above. I liked the crisp duck pieces, but the duck slices didn’t send me into the stratosphere.Worth eating, yes, but definitely my least favorite dish of the day.
Lastly, we enjoyed an old favorite–spicy pork sausage and rice cakes–a dish that has to be eaten and seen to be understood. The photo will help explain it, I wish I could do it justice with an apt description. It is incredibly complex, with layers of flavors and textures. The rice cakes are not the dry, sawdust cylinders that they sell in health food stores, these are chewy and gelatinous, but still boring unless roasted in oil, as they are here. Roasting gives them a crisp exterior while retaining their chewiness on the inside, an irresistible result. Ground pork is sauteed with Chang’s Red Dragon sauce of dried red chilies, garlic, ssämjang (Korean pepper paste), Sichuan peppercorns, onions and mirin, and tossed with the rice cakes. Crispy shallots are sprinkled on top. Wow.
Fortunately I was with two hungry young men, enabling me to try all of these fun dishes without having to overindulge. Still, I was glad our next adventure was a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and back. After all, I had to work up an appetite for dinner!