Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Momofuku Seiobo (Bar Menu), Pyrmont, New South Wales (Alissa and Don eat Australia)

When creating the shortlist of places to check out during our trip to Sydney, Momofuku Seiobo was one of the places that I knew was non-negotiable. As long time fan of David Chang (I even cooked a dinner of Momofuku Ko dishes late last year), a visit to a Momofuku restaurant has been on my restaurant bucket list for many years, and I was not going to let the opportunity to cross one off the list pass me by. The only problem? We had already reserved degustation dinners at LuMi, Cafe Paci and Sepia months in advance, and with other banquet/chef's choice menus at Ms. G's and Nomad also planned, Seiobo's reservation window of 20 days before the requested date came a bit too late to an already crowded and expensive party, and I didn't want to cut any of those other meals out of our plans either. Thankfully, Seiobo had a perfect compromise; their small 5 seat bar offers a limited bar menu for walk-ins, and features that most famous of Momofuku dishes - the Pork Bun. With the promise of Pork Buns and other dishes in the more casual Momofuku style of Noodle Bar and Ssam, Alissa and I set off early for dinner in Pyrmont to avoid any potential queues for the bar.

We arrived to find we had no competition whatsoever, and were seated just as soon as the doors opened. Much more casual than the main space, but nevertheless very modern and classy, the bar featured the same impressive selection of wines as the main restaurant for us to choose from, sorted by descriptors like 'earthy' or 'light' or 'smooth' to help point diners in the right selection and to possibly discover varietal they might have not tried otherwise. We went with a few by the glass options, and were happy with the quality of the selection available to us.

When Seiobo say that their bar menu is limited, they are not wrong - there would have been no more than 8 items listed, however when everything sounded pretty delectable, it was a very strong list nevertheless. After filling out an form similar to what you might find in a dim sum restaurant, we handed in our order and awaited the delights to come.

The first dish to arrive was the Spanner Crab Roll with Celery Salt Crisps - one of the long-standing staples of the Seiobo bar menu, and the only savoury dish that did not originate at another Momofuku branch (as far as I can tell, though I could be wrong). The Crab Roll was superb - the soft brioche bun was buttered on all sides and toasted for a crisp exterior, and the Crab Meat filling within was sweet, creamy and perfectly seasoned. The accompanying potato crisps were well made, with a subtle celery flavour - as a hater of celery, this was to my liking. This dish alone would give me reason to return to Seiobo, and even though the restaurant is far from new these days, it is so good that I'm surprised that there weren't more people popping in for these.

A very generous serve of Smoked Prosciutto with slices of Baguette and Coffee Mayonnaise followed, and is a dish originally from Momofuku Ssam. Plates of charcuterie and bread are much more an Alissa favourite than something I particularly seek out as it can often be little more than a sourcing job, but this was a deceptively complex dish. The fat of the Proscuitto had been imparted with lovely depth of flavour from the smoking process, and the thin slices had a lovely, soft texture. The Coffee Mayo was the master touch however, as the earthiness of the coffe flavour paired well with the smoke. With some nice crusty bread to eat it with, this was a dish far greater than the sum of its parts.

Next up was the moment Alissa and I had all been waiting for - the Momofuku Pork Buns. The Pork Bun has become an ubiquitous staple of restaurant menus the world over, ranging from straight rip offs, variations on the pork theme and even a completely surprising version that crossed the steamed bun with a Ruben Sandwich, however there is something really great about the elegant simplicity and addictive nature of Chang's original combination. The Steamed Buns were larger than most places, and had a fluffiness that was just about peerless. The balance of the fillings was perfect - two generous slices of melt in your mouth Pork Belly, a perfectly restrained level of Hoisin Sauce, thinly sliced Pickled Cucumber and fresh Spring Onion and a squirt of Sriracha for good measure. After a bitterly disappointing morning chasing after the other famous Pork Bun of Tim Ho Wan, it was nice to see Momofuku's most famous and influential dish live up to the hype.

Initially having only ordered three dishes, Alissa and I felt like we had space for one more dish and decided to order the Roasted Rice Cakes with Dragon Sauce. I knew that Seiobo would have a Rice Cake dish on the menu and I was secretly hoping it would be the Rice Cakes with Pork Sausage from Ssam, however this old Noodle Bar classic with the traditional Korean Dragon sauce was nevertheless a good alternative. The Rice Cakes had a lovely crispiness to them, and a firm, somewhat dense texture that was unusual but nevertheless pleasing. The sauce was spicy and sweet, and although the recipe in the Momofuku cookbook does not list tomato amongst its ingredients, the red sauce had a tomato-like flavour that made us think of pasta. To top it off, the insanely generous amount of fried shallot on top gave it even more crunch and delicious, roasty flavour. Being a carb-heavy staple, this was a very filling dish and we were definitely not hungry afterwards.

After having chatted with the lovely staff that evening, they brought out a plate of Petit Fours for us, featuring the Canelé served at the end of the degustation. A Bordeaux speciality of baked custard with a shell of beeswax, these were a small but tasty sweet treat to end the meal. The baked custard filling gave the Canelé a nice airiness, and it tasted a bit like something between a Souffle and Pain Perdu (French Toast) - a very good middle ground to occupy. The staff apparently go crazy for these and have had to limit themselves. We could see why - had we not become overly full due to the Rice Cakes, we would have taken them up on the offer of a second plate too.

The Verdict: Excellent +
Having had to scale back our ambitions somewhat and skip the degustation at Seiobo, Alissa and I were glad to find the Bar Menu to be a very satisfying consolation prize. Although very limited in comparison to other restaurants imitating the Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssam business models - and indeed Noodle Bar and Ssam themselves - the tight and focused menu had enough solid items on it to make for a good, casual dinner accompanied by a world class wine list. The fact that the Pork Bun is only available at the bar should be reason enough to give Seiobo's Bar a visit, however for me it was the Spanner Crab Roll that was a major surprise and highlight, and if I lived in Sydney I'd probably be a Seiobo bar regular for that alone.

The staff were excellent and very friendly - similar to the kind of casual and non-pretentious service we enjoyed at Vue de Monde last year. The only slight negative would be that the food was perhaps a bit pricey compared to restaurants of a similar level. Considering this is the bar menu of a Three Hatted restaurant however its quite understandable, and even with some splurgy by the glass wine choices, it still came in at under the asking price for a single degustation. All in all, this was a great first Momofuku experience that makes me want to go back for the full degustation experience next time we are in town.

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