David Chang: the “it” chef; known worldwide for his Momofuku brand restaurants that are not only redefining modern Asian food but also the standard “rules” of dining, his brash temperament and open loathing of food bloggers.
The first time I heard of Momofuku was in 2009 when I came across the cookbook whilst holidaying in Florida. At that time, David Chang’s name had not yet made it across the pacific to Australia. I found his cookbook exciting and after a quick flick through the pages, it was purchased. In the intervening two years, it has become one of my favourites, the pages well worn and stained with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Therefore, when planning my trip to New York, I was determined to eat at Momofuku. Since it’s harder to get a table at Ko than it is to get Book of Mormon tickets (believe me I’ve tried and been unsuccessful at both), I decided to visit Saam Bar and the Milk Bar.
In summary, I was delighted and underwhelmed at the same time. I’ll start with Saam Bar but before progressing, I would like to explain why there are no photos in this blog.
David Chang’s reputation of blogger loathing is well known and the no photo policy at Momofuku Ko is well documented. Although no one at Saam Bar seemed to care (and I think photos may even be allowed), out of respect for Chef Chang, I didn’t take any photos. However, I strongly disagree any restaurants “no photo” policy.
The main reason that I have heard for why some chefs have a “no photo” policy is, in my opinion, flawed. Some chefs argue that if photos of the food are plastered all over the internet, there won’t be any element of surprise for the diner when the food is presented. I could understand this argument if the policy was consistently applied. However, to feature on television shows detailing course after course (Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations episode comes to mind) to promote your food defeats the “surprise” argument. Either avoid any photo media, or embrace it.
But back to Saam Bar….I ordered a serve of pork belly buns served with scallions, cucumbers and hoisin sauce and a pulled duck bun. Whilst both were delicious and well cooked, I couldn’t help but be disappointed on two fronts.
The first was due to the hype. I have grown up eating those flavours and given all the accolades and raving reviews about the “out of this world” pork buns, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Delicious? Abso-f...ing-lutely. Life changing? No.
The second reason was price. I found the $18 cost for three buns to be quite steep compared to what I am used to paying for other similar meals in Hong Kong, Flushing or back home.
I guess the great disappointment for me was that I am such a fan of the cookbook and the recipes are perfect for the home cook, yet that the food at Saam was no better than what I can make at home was disappointing.
Perhaps, I should keep trying to get a spot at Ko because I think I would enjoy the food style there a lot more. Whilst I found the food at Saam to be tasty and satisfying, I felt flat afterwards and without any compulsion to return.
Moving on to the Momofuku Milk Bar for dessert. I have to say it: “what is all the fuss about??” I ordered two of the most talked about desserts: crack pie and cereal milk soft serve and both ended up unfinished. The crack pie was sickeningly sweet and undercooked (for my taste) but at least I now have confirmation that when I tried to make the pie at home a few months ago, I didn’t stuff it up, it’s meant to be soft and goopy.
Cereal milk, however, is something I just can’t understand. How is it that basically left-over milk that you find in the bottom of your bowl after you’ve eaten your cornflakes for breakfast can be considered so revolutionary and have so many devotees? I don’t care that it’s been turned into soft-serve, it still tastes like left-over milk.
In summary, both Saam & Milk Bar left me flat and disappointed. My hopes were sky high and whilst Momofuku cookbook will continue to be my favourite and used at least weekly, my experiences in person were “meh”.
Whilst I love simple food (and this food certainly was), I think my lack of enthusiasm was a direct result of the overhype and resultant expectations. Perhaps if I wasn’t half-Chinese and raised with those flavours, I would find the food exciting and new but it just didn’t do it for me (and I so wanted it to).