Ssam Bar by Kalina
Tomorrow, Frank Bruni re-reviews Dave Chang's previously two-starred East Village laboratory, Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Today, the Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows:
Zero Stars: 20-1
One Star: 6-1
Two Stars: 5-1
Three Stars: 4-1 ??
Four Stars: 5,000-1
First, to address the matter of the re-review of a restaurant that gets more press than the mayor, Ssäm has changed chefs since it was last reviewed 20-odd months ago; its current menu bears only mild resemblance to the menu Bruni awarded the deuce in February, 2007. The new menu, for example, does address at least one previous Bruni complaint, that mochi ice cream was the only dessert offering. Furthermore, the Brizzunz has always been a reviewer of restaurants in their time, and times have, indeed, changed significantly. If Market Table is the new two bagger and Allen & Delancey was a deuce a year ago, then maybe a reassessment of Ssäm is reasonable. And, though it's too new to mention for its food, the opening of Momofuku Milk Bar (in an adjoining space next door) does buy the critic a few column inches.
Now, on the matter of the star count this time around, it's impossible to ignore several key data points, the topic of the food at Ssäm entirely aside. These include the two star bar just established at Market Table, the baffling two at Double Crown, the three stars that Momofuku Ko holds at present, and high-low three stars for Alto and Convivio, another case of one chef operating two excellent restaurants that have little more than chef and sensibility in common. All those signs suggest an upgrade to three stars for Ssäm. Also, and here's where we come to the food: chef Tien Ho's new menu, while in many ways vastly different from previous iterations, holds steady in that weird place of inspiration and insanity that is a Ssäm bar signature.
The case for fewer stars is that the time has come for a Dave Chang take-down and the Bruni is the man for the job. There are moments during which Ssäm missteps or overplays its Dave Chang hand—such as the fact that you still cannot get a proper cup of coffee at the restaurant, which is either pathetic or offensive, the diner's mood depending. Plus, the argument could be made that three stars for Ssam boxes in the Bruni quite uncomfortably as his review of Paul Liebrandt's Corton inevitably approaches. Indeed, Chang non-enthusiasts do have some justification in betting on less than three stars—this aforementioned one star take-down scenario or just a State of the Ssäm deuce. All in, however, we have to get behind our man and call it for a paradigm-shifting three stars.
· Momofuku Ssäm Bar [NYT; after 8:00 PM]
?? denotes the Eater bet.