Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Peaches of New York - Momofuku Ssam Bar, Ma Peche, Momofuku Milk Bar

Momofuku Ssam - steamed pork buns
The Momofuku empire needs no introduction, so let's just get stuck into it, starting with David Chang's infamous pork buns. It's the stuff of foodie fairytales. Articles have been published, blogs have been posted, copycat recipes have been written, tweets have... um, been tweeted, all about just how omg-f*cking-fantastic these buns are. As much as I tried to stay away from the hype of that kind of literature, I was also here because of it.

Duck bun
But as someone who doesn't really understand the American palate, I found two things problematic. A) A bun that was way too thick, more like a mantou than a guabao, and B) too much blardy sauce! Let me first explain that David Chang's buns are basically guabaos, commonly found in places like Taiwan and north of Shanghai (where the Chinese staple is flour rather than rice). As far as creativity with fillings go, Taiwan probably trumps the rest of the region. They're also the ones who are famous for serving these things like burgers as street food, kind of like what Chang is doing. On the topic of fillings, Chang's were really good. Excellent pork belly that was juicy, chunky and fell apart upon impact, full flavoured and all. The duck looked like a sort of confit - nonetheless, aside from being a bit dry, it was also pretty tasty.

Pork buns again
The problem I have is mostly with the bun. In pictures, it looks all cute, puffy and round, trying hard to bundle its contents. In reality, the resilient roundness comes from the density of the dough. It bears closer resemblance to a soft fast-food burger bun than a guabao (maybe that's why Americans have gone nuts for it?). The guabao I know are fluffy and warm. The steam escapes from the pores of the bun when you hold it (and thus apply pressure). As if in protest, the bun releases a sigh that scorches your fingers (it's steam, remember, that's why it escapes - don't be so quick to get all romantic about the bun exhaling and stuff). With this bun we had, there wasn't even steam, not to mention that it got cold way too quickly. It wasn't rock hard, but just too dense. Ok, now the sauce. Probably because the bun won't disintegrate into a soppy mess after the application of sauce, copious amounts of the stuff was put in. First, this made eating it a bit sloppy, as it would drip out, and secondly the flavours were too intense. They shrouded the delicious pork flavours so much that after the first bite, I opened the bun and scraped some sauce out. A light smattering of pickles would have helped balance things out a bit too. There were raw cumcumber slices, but without warmth and acidity, the bun just seemed to go cold way too quickly. In my mind, to be perfectly honest, this is an inferior guabao parading as something new. Just give me that pork belly and bin the rest of it already.

Duck dumplings
They kind of looked like Chinese-ish dumplings, but they weren't. Chinese dumplings would never just be filled with a lump of minced meat. We'd add things to it for texture, like water chestnuts or just blobs of fat. This was a meatball wrapped tightly in a wrapper. No air, no soup, no nothing inside the dumpling aside from finely minced duck. Biting in, with the wrapper clinging so tightly to the duck, wasn't exactly pleasant. Why not just give me duck meatballs then, and some wrappers floating in the soup like noodles or pasta?

Pig's head
Now, Ma Peche. Perhaps because it doesn't carry the exact Momofuku name, Ma Peche is a little like the unsung hero of the empire - maybe not unsung, just less sung. (And maybe less coveted because you can call to book instead of using their impenetrable online system?). Everyone, myself included, seemed to think it has a Vietnamese influence. Well, aside from the single dish of summer rolls on the menu, I couldn't see much of a Vietnamese slant.

Steak frites
We galloped in after watching Chinglish on Broadway (do see it, it's very good) around 9.30pm, and of course, there was no problem getting a table. A couple of Seven Spice Sours later, we were ready to order.

(Not all the pics of what we had are here - check out this album for more.) To start, the "pig's head" - for a minute we really did think they were going to bring us a pig's head, like they do with a whole suckling pig, but then we thought - no, this is America, they can't do that. (Something about that reminds me of the old ladies in Chinatown, anyway.)

Striped Bass
One of the highlights were the steak frites, the frites of which were, as you can see, batons on polenta-covered potato rather than French fries. While they didn't give the same crunchy/chomp-chomp-chomp sensation of thin fries, they made me think of popcorn, and with its crisp, almost brittle shell, plus chunky soft centre, it was oddly comforting. The second highlight was the bass. Funnily enough, that wasn't my first choice (I'd wanted the halibut pot pie), but this turned out to be amazing. The fish was perfectly, and I mean perfectly cooked. A tender flesh that held its shape, bursting with silky fluids, with a crisp skin, plus the delicate, earthy flavours of miso and mushrooms. Excuse me while I jfhgf dhgjdhjxis ojfpo*$%^&&

wipe the drool from my keyboard.

Ma Peche really did it for me. The Asian-inflected but not-really-Asian flavours reminded me of the meal I had when Mission Chinese Food did that event in Shenzhen. The food here is refined comfort food. It gives me the fuzzy warmth of familiar flavours, but used in cleaner, re-imagined ways, paired with precise, spot-on technique. I can't really do this at home, yet it gives me the feeling of being there. So damn smart.

Seven Spice Sour
You know what else is smart? Delicious drinks. Drinks usually yield a much higher profit margin than food, and superb combinations of alcohol (even more ka-ching) like this mean even people who don't usually drink much will order a couple. There was also a citrussy whiff as we walked down the stairs to the restaurant - if they did that on purpose to prime us, ha, then I totally fell for it, and I don't regret it a single bit. See? Good business.

Momofuku Milk Bar (above Ma Peche)
Oh, and fantastic staff. So on the ball, so casually cool yet approachable (we chatted about cameras and white balance - whoah), but not too relaxed to provide razor-sharp service. We happily laid down our tip.

Takeaway crack pie
After dinner, the fluoro pink lights of the Milk Bar lured us into getting a cereal milk soft serve (not quite as fantastic as the salted caramel one at Bi-Rite Creamery, but very nice nonetheless), the infamous (again) Crack Pie and a couple of cookies.

Christina Tosi's crack pie
Crack pie wasn't as crack-like as I thought. In fact, I felt a bit sick after a couple of bites. It was really, really, yolky and heavy. The pie crust was thin, which is usually a good thing - proof of meticulous technique etc. - but the heaviness of the filling actually calls for more crust.
Crack pie again
I ate most of it, but enjoyed the bits along the rims the best - higher crust-to-filling ratio. Not sure if the top wasn't as nice because I had waited till the next morning to have it, but I was expecting a slightly more bruleed or crisp caramel-like top, but alas, I had no such fortune.

My "Chanel 2.55"
Anyway, a trio of ups and downs, but the influence of Chang's empire is clear.

Just look at all the stuff I bought...

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Ave (enter on 13th St.)
New York NY 10003
United States of America
No reservations except for large parties and prix fixe

Ma Peche
15 West 56th St
New York NY 10019
United States of America
+1 212 757 5878

Momofuku Milk Bar
4 locations - the two I went to were upstairs from Ma Peche & opposite Ssam.

View e_ting in New York in a larger map


  1. Will be interested to try out the Momofuku in Sydney (although would love to check out the NYC empire of course - v jealous). Those steak frites look amazing and also coveting your peachy Chanel bag!

  2. Really interesting to see your take on it! I've still not been but hope to go soon.

    Cara - Ben Greeno is chef in Sydney. Hope to get there this year too (delayed from last year!)

  3. I only went to Noodle Bar and thought the pork ramen was the best thing ever. Then again we don't get much in the way of Ramen in London. I'm definitely hitting Ma Peche for that fish soon, just your description had me drooling a bit.

  4. There's probably no chef that inspires me more at the moment than David Chang - largely because of how he plays with the idea of authenticity. If you'll forgive me for waxing post-modern, he problematices the discourse of authenticity.

    Which, of course, brings me to the Pork Buns. Like you, I loathe over-saucing. But, I'm not sure the buns, as you describe them would have troubled me. In fact, if they "look" like a Taiwanese bun but "eat" like an American burger bun, that makes me more interesting to me than if they had been authentic GuaBao.

    If I had the skills, I've love to make something that looks like MuShu (pancakes for Peking Duck) but ate like a maize tortilla.

    Anyway, great review; you've challenged me to think more about the food I experience - again.

  5. Fernando - Maybe when it comes to matters of the palate, I still live in the past. My head loves the ideas that I've been exposed to via the meals I've had on this trip (in particular Daniel Patterson at Coi, Jose Andres at e, the Momofukus by David Chang and Rene Redzepi at Noma) and they are definitely changing the game. I appreciate that, but perhaps we live in a time where these guys are the pioneers, and either a) I'm not yet used to how things taste because the combinations are so new (e.g. in my mind, a guabao dough cannot be the density of a burger bun - it just doesn't "work" for me), or b) they haven't worked their kinks out yet. Anyway, IRL I say this all the time, but for some reason have never written it on my blog - no experience is a bad experience if there's something new to see - the blog documents my thoughts after my experience.

    Cara, Niamh, Lizzie - would love to know what you guys think of your respective 'new' Momofuku experiences when you try them!