Momofuku Ssm Bar
207 2nd Ave. (at 13th St.)
David Chang became New York delectuals’ darling while maintaining complete disregard for vegetarians. He opened his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in the East Village in 2004, and as the acclaim boiled over, he glowed with a certain pride in his ability to succeed on Hip Street and concede only a single dish to those who don’t eat meat.
It was cavalier, but honest.
Chang’s interests lay in meaty and fishy dishes and offal that is de rigueur both in Chinatown and in top French restaurants. And so, to put vegetarian food on the menu of his First Avenue slurp shop just to make a buck would have seemed, perhaps, like the Dead Kennedys recording a pop ballad.
But Chang has not taken the same approach with the Momofuku Ssm Bar, which opened last year. At least not during the daytime when it is a cafeteria-style lunch spot serving Chang’s ssm, burrito-like wraps encasing local and Asian specialties.
After hours, however, is a different story. The lights dim and, until 2 a.m., foodies arrive in droves to taste the products of Chang’s fertile imagination. And that mostly involves pig parts (and only four kinds of ssm, none of which are vegetarian).
For lunch recently, I had no problem getting a table at Ssm Bar, where the atmosphere felt comparable to a ‘Wichcraft. The braised tofu version of the house specialty ($9) came big and burro-shaped, split in half and sheathed in aluminum foil. The flour wrapper was indistinguishable from a Texas tortilla. It kept warm, sticky brown rice studded with edamame, sweetish caramelized onions reminding me of the Polish pierogi accoutrement, and rectangular lengths of tofu, which tasted to me of Chinese five spice, a savory and aromatic blend used widely in Canton. The roll also contained crunchy bean spouts and whipped tofu, which in combination with white (vegetarian, I was assured) kimchi puree made for a zippy, wet addition that seemed to be a vegan-friendly mayo substitute.
The tofu ssm is a quality lunch in itself, though I wish Chang would add chewy mushrooms or something to add a variety of texture to what is mostly mushy.
A side of Chap Chae ($4), a Korean dish of stir-fried potato-starch noodles mixed with shitakes, julienne carrots and red bell peppers, wasn’t as sticky or as sweet as what I’m used to on 32nd Street, perhaps because in Koreatown beef products are used. It came cold and in a small dish. So too the Kewpie Salad ($4), a slaw of white cabbage mixed in a shell-colored spicy and rich mayonnaise, rained on by a few black sesame seeds. The mix of creaminess and a dose of fire was an interesting one: arguably the same that makes great Chang’s favorite soft drink: Dr. Pepper.
A different day, I returned to the same location after the dance of the midnight foodies had already begun. I sat elbow-to-elbow at the counter in the sleek, sexy-in-its-nightwear space of flat, dark-grained wood panels with little adornment and asked the waitress what she had without meat.
“This restaurant’s not too friendly for vegetarians,” she said with what seemed a friendly smile.
In fact, the waiter she called over helpfully explained that the Roasted Mushroom Salad contained bonito flakes and trace amounts of dashi, a broth that was made with fish.
Normally, he said the Seasonal Pickles are made with red kimchi, which has krill in it. But he was glad to leave that off despite Chang’s reputed unwillingness in the past to alter his dishes.
The only vegetarian offering that wouldn’t require a remix, however, was the $8 Bread & Butter. It came as a foot-long log as thick as a dancer’s pole. It’s dark, crusty outside flaked off like shale and the white inside was hot, moist and semi-dense. The loaf had a notable burntness to it that seemed intentional.
On the same plate came a pair of ramekins filled with butter, a sea salt variety from Vermont and a softer, yellower goat’s butter from England, which had been dusted with black pepper.
Both butters were delicious compared to most restaurants’ spreads, but in the end they were each too salty for one person to eat much. Besides, I felt like I was doing rival dairy farms’ version of the Coke vs. Pepsi challenge instead of having a meal.
Next time I’ll get the pickles by special request. Overall, vegetarians should probably stick to Ssm’s lunch menu, where David Chang has thrown them a bone.
Read Walmsley Apricot’s review of Momofuku Noodle Bar at Whorebivore.com.
Momofuku Ssm Bar