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Free Food: Momofuku Ssam Bar, David Chang's Trailblazing NYC Restaurant, Will Close. Again.
Plus, reviews of Libertine, a few really good breakfast burritos, and the icy paletas at Mateo's in Los Angeles
Free Food is a weekly column that tracks some of the biggest (and smallest) stories in food from across the country, with a focus on features, op-eds, and reviews
Momofuku Ssam Bar sails into the West
Ssam Bar wasn’t just a restaurant, it was a paradigm for eating out in the pre-recessionary aughts and beyond.
As Midtown fine dining temples commanded steep prices and tight reservations for polite, posh European prix-fixes, David Chang and his motley crew of chefs vacuumed a crowd of hungry gourmands into a late-night, cramped, no reservations space in the East Village for spicy, messy, experimental, affordable-ish small plates. There were nods to Korea, Vietnam, China, France, and the American South. The kitchen dedicated a whole menu section to offal. A classic “salad” consisted of bacon, apple kimchi, and maple labneh. And if you were a vegetarian or wanted a substitution in the early days, you were absolutely, positively, not going to have a good time.
It closed in 2020 and Momofuku, backed by serious private capital, relocated and reopened Ssam as a sleek and expensive Seaport spot in 2021. Now, just over two years later in its new home, the seminal New York restaurant will shutter permanently, Momofuku announced on Instagram.
I can’t speak to the business factors behind the decision, but culturally and culinarily, the new space never regained the cutting-edge relevance or raffish magic of the old digs. And even thought it was never a Korean restaurant outright, it’s hard not to wish the new Ssam Bar was fueled by the same thriving experimentation (something Momofuku was once famous for) that drives the city’s flourishing Modern Korean scene.
The new Ssam Bar felt like yet another expensive share plates spot — a trend it helped fuel — in a city with no shortage of them. Instead of late-night dining, the restaurant listed a 9:00 p.m. closing time during the week. Instead of a good offal selection, Ssam Bar offered up a farro salad with avocado, $50 truffled rice cakes, and a bunch of pricey steaks. I was excited to test-drive the tabletop grills on the upstairs menu, and to sample the impressive selection of good country hams. I was less excited about the large format bo ssam meal jumping up to nearly $1,000.
Ssam Bar will shutter on September 30. But to many, it had already closed long ago.
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Fruit is simple and delicious when you eat it. Fruit is more complicated if you write about it.
When you opine on caviar, you talk about the oily pop and the luscious brine. When you discuss prime rib, you mention the bloody tang, the beefy jus, and maybe the dry-aged musk. But how do you describe a limón? An orange tastes like an orange. A piña smells like a piña. There are words you can throw in there to build an image and hint at flavor — tropical, acidic, floral, sugary, fibrous — but I’ve always found it tough to deploy concise descriptions while conveying the elemental scent of a strawberry or guanábana.
The added challenge is to make your words feel intuitive to someone who’s never tried the fruit in question — yet revelatory to those who’ve been eating it their entire lives. Lucas Kwan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times takes on this task with his review of the 30 or so paletas at Mateo’s. And I think he does a nice job describing the icy fruit pops in short form. How does nance taste (a yellow cherry of sorts)? “Imagine an overripe banana that’s been smoked over a campfire. If you’re expecting something cherry-flavored, you’ll be disappointed.” What about arrayán? It’s “botanic and perfume-y and feels like a guava that’s evolved into its final form,” Peterson writes.
And mamey? “Earthy and creamy, like a funky papaya…Imagine all the best qualities of a sweet potato — rich and earthy — minus the mealiness or stringiness that can sometimes befall the tuber.”
Good breakfast burritos are showing up to bat in New York City, my old Eater colleague Luke Fortney writes. And while he chooses a favorite (Super Burrito), he also does a very cool and informative job taxonomizing these staples within the pantheon of American cookery.
“Like the Chicago dog or chopped cheese sandwich, breakfast burritos abide by exacting, regional formulas that shift based on the origin of their maker,” he writes, noting the importance of green chiles at New Mexican spots and “greasy, grated” hash browns at venues inspired by San Francisco.
Fortney’s column also represents the New York debut of “Highly Opinionated,” a series pioneered by the good folks at Eater LA. I’ve always enjoyed these sorts of pieces, as they represent a smart effort to bring more voices and perspectives into the type of opinion-related writing that’s sometimes the exclusive domain of critics or outside contributors. I’ve long believed (and this is not something I’ve been quiet about) that the more critics can exercise their reporting skills — and the more reporters can hone the argumentative, column-writing side of their brains — the stronger we all become as journalists. So more of this, please!
Bill Addison of the Los Angeles Times likes the food at the shopping mall location of Villa Tacos, and best of all, the venue seems to reflect the spirit of the pop-up original, where the critic observed the following:
“Villa frequently focused on his marquee queso tacos — tortillas fused with cheese that often formed into browned, jagged rhombus shapes resembling continents; on others the cheese ran like thinned pancake batter that seized into lacy edges. Either form resulted in salty-crisp deliciousness.”
Sounds tasty, right? Addison goes on to call the queso taco “deftly engineered chaos.”
Vittles has a column dedicated “to the art of hating.” Noted! Earlier in July, resident hater Chloe-Rose Crabtree wrote about the experience of Americans living and eating abroad in London. Specifically:
“My gripe with taco snobbery, especially when it comes from Americans abroad, is that it showcases an attitude that assumes the American experience should be replicated around the world, while forgetting that respect for Mexican food, especially in the US, has been hard-fought.”
Emma Orlow’s superpower, in addition to being a very good journalist, is diligently covering the pop-up scene throughout the city. It’s an absolutely vital beat in that pop-ups showcase up-and-coming talent (or more veteran chefs) that might not have the institutional resources or financing of more established groups. And so the story goes that in this fine column, Orlow highlights how pop-ups in bodega kitchens are acting as incubators for chefs who serve good pernil, mariscos, and scallion pancake burritos. Here’s a key line explaining the lure of this model:
“A side gig or alternate revenue stream in a bodega kitchen may be particularly appealing to those weary of starting a standalone business in an era of such punishing commercial rents. (Plus, to a degree, owners are able to skirt some of the New York restaurant opening bureaucracy.)”
You don’t encounter a lot of iced atole a lot in New York. And you don’t hear about tejuino a ton either, a fermented drink popular in Jalisco that’s made with masa, piloncillo (unrefined sugar, or jaggery), and lime. But Alan Chazaro of KQED pens a few words about a tasty-sounding version at Oakland’s Nieves Cinco de Mayo. Here, the drink is fortified with helado de limón — not an uncommon addition.
But take a look at how Chazaro describes the taste of tejuino in three concise words. It’s like sipping on a "tangy, liquified tortilla,” he writes. I’ll take one!
I only made a single visit to Libertine, but I liked it and have no doubt I’ll be back. Pete Wells will surely return as well, based on his recent missive. He talks about the West Village bistro’s affinity to Paris spots like Paul Bert and L’Ami Jean. They’re both members of the longstanding bistronomie movement that seeks to update traditional dishes with modern sensibilities and techniques. I’m still mulling over Libertine, but I’d say it’s not always as classic as a Paul Bert, yet not as consistently risky as a Wildair. It occupies a middle ground for folks who want something more edgy than a Pastis (there are no fries) but not as modern as a Contra.
Here’s a nice Wells graph from a dish I haven’t tried…yet!
There’s another appetizer to consider, the lobster chou farci. This is essentially a seafood sausage, with chunks of lobster suspended in a sweet scallop mousse. A leaf of tender cabbage serves as the skin that holds it all together. It wouldn’t be out of place on an Alain Ducasse menu, although Mr. Ducasse would probably serve it with a sauce américaine that takes two days to make. Mr. Mackinnon simply surrounds it with crème fraîche, then spoons leek oil over it.
Oh, and coming in just before I publish is New York Magazine’s Matthew Schneier with his debut restaurant review. Like Wells, he writes about Libertine, and he has a lovely description of the chicken liver as a “offal frosting” on the warm baguettes.
Paula Forbes likes cookbooks, a lot. She also writes them. And critiques them. And if you really like cookbooks as well allow me to recommend her Stained Page News substack! Last week, the writer put out her national fall preview (not unlike the autumn restaurant previews you see everywhere), and in it you’ll find quick notes on some of the major cookbooks coming out, including works by José Andrés (dishes inspired by the countries where World Central Kitchen has worked), Aaron Adams (on vegan fermentation!), Clarissa Wei (“Made in Taiwan,” which I’m stoked about), and Hillary Dixler Canavan (the “Eater” cookbook, which comes out very soon!).
That’s it! See you next week.
p.s. I wrote a longer retrospective of the original Ssam Bar when it closed in 2020. You can read it right here, on Eater.