To understand where things go off the rails at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose new Seaport District digs feel like a monogrammed polo shirt of its formerly raffish self, consider the venue’s riffs on glutinous Korean rice cakes, or tteok.
The original East Village location attracted a dedicated following with these chewy knobs, crisping them up on the griddle before showering them in a Sichuan pork ragu with whipped tofu. Eating them was akin to sampling an Italian-style Bolognese reinterpreted through the lens of a Michelin-starred chef who was craving Chinese mapo after a long shift of tweezing food. Ssäm Bar chefs came and went over the years, sometimes overhauling the menu and sometimes simply tweaking it, but the Sichuan rice cakes were a constant through line. Even if they weren’t on the printed menu, a waiter would often add that the kitchen could whip them up for you, no problem. They cost $11 back in 2006; by the time Ssäm relocated to the old Bar Wayō space at Pier 17 this spring, with new chef Eunjo Park at the helm, the price had increased to a very fair $21.
Park also expanded the restaurant’s tteok repertoire by adding another Korean-Italian option, cacio e pepe rice cakes, for $23. Then something odd happened. Park nixed the classic rice cakes and started shaving more expensive black truffles over her cacio e pepe variety. The black truffle rice cakes are now Ssäm Bar’s only rice cakes, and the sole vegetarian or starch-based main. For this, you pay $48. That’s a problem for reasons not just financial but culinary as well. The tteok pack their signature chewy bounce, but the Parmesan doesn’t impart the salty and ultra-savory punch that it typically does. The pepper, too, is almost undetectable. And so when the earthy pungency of the black truffle fades away, you understand the true core of this dish, which is a tasty but middle-of-the-road mac and cheese. It’s just something creamy to warm your insides and stick to your ribs — in the dead of July.
Here’s some tough news for those who are eager to get back to one of the city’s great restaurants. Ssäm Bar, once the affordable-ish and experimental heart of the Momofuku Empire, isn’t really a place worth spending $225 on dinner for two, at least not in its current sterile form, which showcases pricey truffles, bland wagyu, popcorn shrimp that appear to be cribbed from a local Tao, and mixed green salads that taste like they might’ve come from any run-of-the-mill bistro. To understand why this is so heartbreaking, and to understand why there’s reason to be hopeful that things might improve, it’s worth brushing up on the importance of both the original Ssäm and late, great Kawi, where Park served as the head chef.
Ssäm Bar in the East Village, following a brief trial run serving Korean-American burritos in flour tortillas, turned into one of the quintessential restaurants of the late aughts. It helped pave the way for a very specific form of gastronomy that came to characterize downtown dining: ambitious and eclectic fare in crowded, noisy, stripped-down settings, often in the form of salty, spicy small plates. And while Chang the Benevolent eventually allowed his dining room to become more comfortable over the years, the bargain of Ssäm Bar remained: You’d pay less here than at a tonier fine dining establishment for Asian-leaning fare that was just as creative and precise. That meant spicy rice cakes, assorted American hams shaved thin like prosciutto, apple kimchi salads with slabs of bacon, crispy pig’s head terrines, uni with tofu foam, and giant sugary bo ssam pork shoulders.
Kawi at Hudson Yards, which permanently shuttered amid the pandemic, was a very different restaurant, and a more expensive one, but it retained the Momofuku DNA. This is where Park established herself as one of the city’s leading practitioners of modern Korean cooking, serving silky raw blue crab, bruleed tofu with oily salmon roe, country ham-topped rice cakes, and what might’ve been the city’s deepest and priciest selection of kimbap rice rolls, including a very good one with candied anchovies. In a gargantuan mall known for its absurdly priced steaks and seafood, this was something very different; it was a place to show off Park’s penchant for creative whimsy, complex textures, and powerful flavors. Indeed, as Momofuku moved into sleek developments around the country — thanks to a hefty investment from RSE Ventures — Kawi was proof that it could continue to do so without losing its cred, offering up dishes that contrasted with the stereotypically European-American notions of fancy shopping-center food.
The new Ssäm Bar, by contrast, simultaneously feels like a diluted and upscaled version of those two restaurants. It’s also a serious downgrade from the previous occupant, Wayō, which specialized in fun and sometimes wacky fare like curry doughnuts (sliced tableside), buttery imitation crab meat rolls, excellent Midori sours, and gussied-up bags of Cheetos.
At Ssäm, things are a bit more, well, boring. All but one of the hams are gone, as is the bo ssam, the more interesting raw bar dishes, the affordable rice cakes, the assorted kimbap — dropped a month ago due to a staffing shortage — and the overall loud, high-octane flavors that make Momofuku restaurants stand out from the pack. The good news is that Team Momofuku tells me most of those dishes will return as the restaurant finds its sea legs and hires more folks; it will also add more vegetarian options and debut tabletop grilling upstairs. For now, however, Ssäm Bar fans are better off hanging out at the bar at Ko or elsewhere. None of this is to argue that a chef has any sort of obligation to serve someone else’s greatest hits from a decade ago, or even one’s own dishes from a year ago. But inasmuch as this is a Momofuku restaurant, one has to wonder how a brand famous for challenging diners can end up feeling like it’s pandering a bit.
Here are a variety of things outdoor patrons must ignore to enjoy the lovely East River view: a digital kiosk for Pier 17, the constant visual loop of folks going up and down an escalator, the blue glow of a Chase ATM, a giant pink sign for Mister Dips, a collection of flashing neon ice cream cones, and a Times Square-sized multi-panel billboard that uses its nuclear luminescence to burn the images of Hornitos tequila, canned Bacardi cocktails, and bottled electrolyte water into your eyeballs. It’s as if an anonymous retail center from Northern Virginia has invaded one of the city’s most scenic spots. Inside, two large flatscreen televisions might draw your eyes away from the windows and toward mixed martial arts coverage on ESPN.
The sweet scent of onions fills the indoor dining room — dominated by a C-shaped bar — as waiters march by with sizzling platters of flank steak. A party nearby might be dipping their spoons into cantaloupe-sized bowls of bingsu shaved ice; the creamy, milky desserts do their best visual impressions of pastel ice cream sundaes. They are quite good, but if you want to have your pudding, as the saying goes, you need to eat your meat. Wagyu tartare, on that note, is a pile of soft, flavorless beef paired with shiso leaves. Every now and then a slice of vinegared anchovy pleasantly jolts the tongue, but the tartare, for the most part, is like eating nothing wrapped in herbs for $29.
Flickers of Park’s brilliance come through in the scallops, which are fanned out raw and topped with heady bits of XO sauce. Park also smokes pork ribs over applewood, deep-fries them until they sport a firm crust, glazes them with soy and sugar, and finally anoints each one with a scattering of sesame seeds, chiles, and green garlic. She applies the toppings with such precision it’s hard not to wonder whether she tweezed each micro-garnish individually. This is a spectacular and delicious creation that almost belongs in a jewelry store.
Lots of modern pork belly dishes let the fat render down to the texture of flan; Park’s ssam dish, however, embraces the excellent Korean barbecue tendency to show off a bit of chew. The savory meat, meanwhile, boasts a whisper of smoke, while the exterior flaunts a sweet gochujang glaze. Galbi flank steak, in turn, includes a generous supply of sizzling beef marinated in soy; it sits above a layer of golden onions. An initial bite bursts of meaty, organ-y oils, before the soy, sugar, and beefiness step in to take charge. Add a smear of ssamjang sauce, colored like rust, to act as a salty, savory medium between the crisp lettuce wraps and the heady, medium-rare flesh.
In the past, patrons could also order ssam as sub-$20 single portions with lettuce and rice for lunch. Now, the portions are bigger and priced at $29 to $36. Higher prices and fewer choices are par for course in the current era of restaurants, where there are sometimes both fewer staff and patrons alike. But while so many smaller players around town have managed to keep their cooking interesting and accessible as we pull away from the COVID-19 era, Ssäm Bar has instead transformed itself into a venue where out-of-towners can enjoy the type of generic mall experience that Momofuku restaurants once served as a stark counterpoint to. I’ll be back, however, as the venue revamps itself.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.