David Chang is a lucky guy. After having unbelievable success with his Momofuku noodle bar, he decided to open what could only be called, an odd Asian burrito joint. Why he did it we'll never know. Maybe he had visions of turning it into a national chain like Chipotle. But even after he opened his new restaurant, which he called, Momofuku Saam Bar (the saam is the burrito if you haven't picked that up by now,) and everyone, and I mean to a person whether it was chef, critic or your average diner, shrugged their shoulders about the saam, Chang refused to change the concept at the restaurant to one that was more in keeping with the magic he created at Momofuku. And what was most amazing, and this is the part where Chang is lucky, the critics (including yours truly) who ate at the Saam bar didn't review it.
Though I haven't spoken to the other writers about it, I assume they felt the same way I did. You see Chang is one of the great culinary talents to have come along in a long time. Sort of a working man's Nobu who invented an affordable Asian fusion cuisine that has a perfect blend of Eastern and Western culinary concepts. And rather than give the restaurant a bad review, we gave him the benefit of the doubt and waited for him to turn things around before we wrote about it. It was sort of like art critics going to see works from Picasso's Blue Period before he quite worked them out, and staying mum on the subject until he got the concept on track. That's how we treated Chang's "Saam period."
The odd thing about the saam, and I am not the first to report on this, Adam Platt did an excellent job conveying the dynamic of the situation including a spot-on profile of how Chang's personality came into the mix, despite the fact that every knowledgable person in the food industry, both chef and critic, told him to dump them, Chang was stubborn and stayed true to his concept. But sometimes business needs actually have a positive impact on art, and with his accountants tired of reading journals that were as empty as the restaurant during the "Saam period", Chang finally relented and relegated the saam to its rightful place on the menu (three pitiful entries on the lower right hand corner) and replaced them with a menu full of his sophisticated, yet casual, Asian fusion cuisine which is based on top market ingredients. Now, rather than the restaurant being deserted when we visited this past Saturday night, they were lined up waiting to be seated and at 10:30 people were still teeming into the restaurant. It's funny because if you ask Chang what made the difference, he would tell you that it was Frank Bruni's two star review in the New York Times. But as I would tell him if we were discussing it in person, "You're wrong you asshole, you finally got rid of those stupid saams and put your own food on the menu and that gave Bruni, and the rest of us I might add, something to write about."
They started us with a platter of four appetizers - Caraquet oysters with a kimchee consomme, a grilled squid salad , Jonah crab claws with a yuzu mayonaisse, and a slice of dressed ham served with peanuts. A good start and the Jonah crab claws were exceptional. Chang should ramp them up to Stone Crab claws with the mayo as a dipping sauce. Then a seviche of bay scallop with fish sauce and pineapple. It was good but it didn't quite grab me as much as I thought it would, possibly missing a touch of sweetness. Chang has been serving the Hamachi with edemame and horsradish puree and Uni with creamy tofu and yuzu for awhile now and both dishes have been tweaked to perfection. The uni dish is an amazing concoction. Sort of like breakfast food, but with an unique array of textures and flavors that is reminscent of Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls. To digress for a moment, this is what makes Chang so unique. You could take this dish and dress it up a bit, plate it a bit more carefully, and serve it at a restaurant as grand as Per Se. But here he is serving it on the lower East Side for something like $14. An amazing accomplishment for a chef and an amazing opportunity for diners.
We moved onto a dish of mixed sauteed mushrooms. Very nice but not among the best dishes of the evening. Then a flight of three different country hams, served with a reduced redeye gravy dipping sauce that was simply amazing. I tried to get Chang to tell me how he makes the gravy but he wouldn't do it. But it was wonderfully thick and full bodied, and had a slight, but definitely present, flavor of coffee. Fried Brussel sporuts with fish sauce, chiles and puffed rice crisps was superb. Then a dish out of the Momofuku playbook, grilled asparagus with miso butter and a poached egg.
Chowan Mushi with snails and chopped edemame at the bottom was good if not a bit subtle compared to some of the other dishes. It was sort of redundant to have it in the same meal as the uni dish, and following the intensely flavored Brussel sprouts the dish sort of disappeared. Then grilled sweetbreads with Thai chile dipping sauce. This was the only dish I actively disliked as the sweetbreqads weren't crispy. In fact they were mushy. Blech and we didn't finish it. Later when David came to the table he told us that "they grow on you," adding that a number of people felt the way we felt and they now like the dish. We finished things off with a super claypot shellfish stew with mussels, scallops, what looked like crayfish tails (or maybe sliced shrimp) and thin slices of rice cake in an intense and spicy boullabaisse-style sauce.
An excellent meal and what a difference from the saam days. And it isn't like the staff doesn't know it as well with every one of them saying to me after the meal "How'd you like those burritos we sent out." My meal was so good, I'll be back this week to eat my way through the rest of the menu including the various lettuce wraps with grilled meats. Bravo Chang. We all knew it was just a matter of time. B+