Friday, June 17, 2011

Momofuku Ssäm Bar & Milk Bar: Duck Extraordinaire

When you ask for New York restaurant recommendations, the name Momofuku often arises. Momofuku, which is Japanese for "lucky peach," is its own little culinary empire in the East Village, currently consisting of four restaurants and a bakery. The Chef-Owner is David Chang, a Korean-American who has garnered an excellent reputation, having won several culinary honors.  Prior to opening Momofuku Noodle Bar, his first restaurant in 2004, David worked in the kitchens of a few famed chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio. A number of my friends strongly recommended that I check out the Momofuku restaurants.

So, on my recent trip to New York City, I scheduled some time to visit Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Milk Bar, which are located across the street from each other.  Their menus change frequently and they attempt to use local and sustainable ingredients, whenever possible. They are both worthy culinary destinations in the East Village.

I first stopped at the Milk Bar, a creative and intriguing bakery. It is a small place, with a short counter where you could stand and partake of their baked goods. There are also benches outside where you can sit while eating one of their treats. But mainly it is a takeout place, where  you can buy baked goods to take home with you.

The menu is eclectic, with items which would be good for breakfast, dessert or a savory snack. Where else might you find a Compost Cookie, which contains pretzels, potato chips, butterscotch, oats, coffee, and chocolate? True to its name, they also sell milk jugs and milk shakes, as well as cereal milk soft serve.

The baked goods all look very appealing, and I tried some of the cookies, cake truffles and corn bread. Everything was very fresh, and lasted well for a couple days. The Cornflake cookie, with marshmallows and chocolate chips, was soft with an interesting crunchy texture and gooey marshmallow highlights. It was tasty, with plenty of chocolate chips, and some buttery notes. I really enjoyed the cookie and recommend it. The Blueberry cookie has dried blueberries and milk crumbs and was also very good, flavorful with a nice texture to it.

The Birthday Cake truffles and Banana Hazelnut Chocolate truffles looked like small donut holes, and had rich flavors, and a more cakey texture. My favorite of the two was the Banana, as I liked the interplay of the different tastes.  The Cornbread was also a delight, containing cortija cheese, jalapenos and corn kernels. It was moist with a spicy undertone from the jalapenos, and the cortija added a bit of creaminess to it. An excellent savory item, I really wish I had brought more of this home with me.

This sampling impressed me and I would gladly return there on my next visit to NYC. If you want some more creative baked goods, high on flavor, then make sure to visit Milk Bar.

After buying a few things at the Milk Bar, I went across the street to have lunch at Ssäm Bar.  In Korea, ssäm refers to "wrapped food." The restaurant is medium-sized, though basically separated into two sections, one which has a bar. At lunch, they have a more limited menu, specializing in rotisserie duck, including dishes such as duck dumpling soup, duck sandwich and pulled duck bun. They also have small plates, including broccoli salad, spicy fingerling potatoes, and pickles.

The ducks come from Crescent Farms on Long Island, and you can watch them cooking in the rotisserie. Lunch plates run from $12-$14, and small plates from $5-$11. You order at the counter, take a seat, and then wait for your food to be delivered. I should note that when you order soda, you receive a chilled glass, which probably would be the same for beer. As I enjoy my soda ice cold, this is a nice element.

Their beer and wine list is eclectic and interesting. You will find local New York brews, but also beers from South Korea and California. Unfortunately, they do not carry any New York wines (which I think they should remedy), though you will find wines such as Chateau Musar from Lebanon, sparkling Riesling from Germany and Italian Rose. If local is so important to them, then why don't they carry New York wines?

I selected the lunch plate ($14) with Rotisserie Duck over rice, with ginger scallion, ssäm sauce, and crispy shallot. You can also add on lettuce ($1) or chive pancake ($2), to make your own wrap if you wish. The chive pancake is a thin, crisp and tasty pancake, which I really enjoyed. The first bite of my duck was exquisite, so tender and juicy, nearly melting in my mouth. The crispy skin was addictive, and I had to stop myself from moaning in pleasure.  This was one of the best sliced duck dishes I have ever tasted and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Cooked perfectly, it will excite even a jaded palate. 

I also ordered the Steamed Pork Buns ($10), with hoisin sauce, cucumbers, and scallions. The pork belly was as tender as the duck, melting in your mouth with each bite. The soft steamed bun seemed lighter than regular bread, and the hoisin sauce added a tangy aspect to the sandwich. You could probably just order this as your lunch, as you receive two buns.

An amazing lunch, indicative of the culinary genius of Chef Chang. I must check out the rest of his restaurants, as well as have dinner at Ssäm Bar. All of the positive press he has received seems well deserved. Lunch at Ssäm Bar gets my highest recommendation, and if you go, you must try the rotisserie duck.

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