Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ssam Bar, East Village, New York



New York City is often regarded as one of the most influential food cities in the world with some of the top chefs from our country and beyond keeping the city as their home base.  My list of places to dine in New York is unbelievably long, so when I was invited down to the city for a press trip- I capitalized on any free time by crossing off one of my top spots.  Momofuko has been a household name in my place for years.  A conglomerate of Asian inspired restaurants in New York and Sydney, founder and executive chef David Chang is widely regarded as a genius in the kitchen.  I polled my food experts when I knew I had some time on my hands and the resounding response was to go to Ssam Bar.

Located on the crossing of 2nd and East 13th in the East Village, Ssam Bar capitalizes on big flavors in every dish, though in this casual eatery Chang refuses to hold fast and steady to one particular ethnic influence.  His dishes have notes reminiscent of flavors worldwide, but each is woven in an intricate pattern worthy of the highest praise.  I lucked out on my visit- as I entered the spot hungry and ready to chow down, and had the delightful experience of getting to witness David Chang in the flesh being interviewed.  My food crazy world was made.

 I selected to try the steamed buns, a staple for anyone who knows their weight in a Chinese kitchen.  Chang offers several varieties of this dish, from the classic pork to the playful twist of pulled duck.  I went with the pulled duck.  Here Chang pairs this rich meat with a tzatziki sauce, a bit of that spicy harissa, a little mint and a couple of cucumbers for good measure.  The combination of flavors from just the accompaniments brought the flavors normally paired with lamb to the forefront, and then when combined with the beautiful, gamey duck it was a surprise to my taste buds.  The encasing steamed bun was delightfully doughy with the clean, non over powering flavors of simple ingredients of yeast, flour, water…those true, staple ingredients.  Combined together, each component was able to shine on its own- the crisp cucumber, the creamy yogurt, the fresh mint, a small kick from the harissa…every bite got the title of “the perfect bite”.

Now before I headed off on a jet plane down to NY I did a little research, I asked around for what was good and the resounding response from my fellow food obsessed friends was the Rotisserie Duck Bowl.  Duck breast, cooked to succulent perfection over a rotisserie, served atop a mountain of rice and watercress on the side.  I opted for a side of lettuce leaves with it so I could make little wraps, and I was given traditional accompaniments of Hoison Sauce, Siracha and fried shallots.  It was impossible not to dig in immediately.  Craddling a lettuce leaf in my hand, I spooned in rice, a little siracha sauce, watercress, and then piled on a piece of duck and a sprinkle of the shallots.  I piled that bite into my mouth as fast as I could and found heaven in food.  The duck was rich and powerful in its decadence.  The natural flavor of the duck shone forth in its glory, not overly seasoned by anything else, and stood perfectly on its own, like that resilient teenager who refuses to succumb to peer pressure in the face of that spicy sauce, the peppery watercress or the crisp shallots.  These were simply gestures
on the side, little flavor offerings boosting the star of the dish.  Chang had a little surprise though, creating almost a whole second dish, under each slice of duck was what I can only assume were the droppings from the duck, those small pieces drenched in the flavors of the rotisserie – predominately ginger.  I made a second lettuce wrap immediately using only these and the flavor palette became immediately brighter, with the kick and delight of spicy ginger leading the way.  I realized immediately what all the fuss over David Chang was about…
I cleaned my bowl, ravenously shoveling bite after incredible bite even long after I was stuffed.  There was no way I’d let even a grain of rice go to waste.  I experimented with the different accompaniments- leaving some off, adding in others…every combination was tried and every combination worked. 

Ssam Bar isn’t to be missed whether you live in NY or in LA.  It’s a must go…now.   

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