It was something new and much anticipated, and I so much wanted to love it. Like when w got her new Mini Cooper, I was almost as excited as she was. And we both LOVED it. Totally exceeded expectations. That was the hope I had when we met with friends at Andy Ricker's new Portland spot Ping, his love letter to the street food of southeast Asia and a follow-up to his über-popular Thai joint Pok Pok. The buzz had been huge in town. Talk that this could begin the revitalization of our incredibly lame and tired Chinatown/Old Town area. Its location on NW 4th Avenue is excellent, with windows along two sides, and across the street from the parking lot that hopefully...please God...will become the downtown Uwajimaya store. The place itself is very cozy, with tables to the right and left and a bar facing the open kitchen. The wood paneled walls gave it a warmth, and the vintage radios along the north wall (that had been salvaged form a radio repair business in Old Town) were a pretty cool touch. So was my love requited?
We went in with five people, knowing that would give us a pretty good chance to work our way through a lot of the menu. We each had a cocktail or two, and I thought the gin collins was just about perfect. Tart, fruity, great paired against the spicy food to come. Our server dropped a plate called Miang Kham (pic at left) on our table. Peanuts, ginger, thai chilies, fried dry shrimp, toasted coconut, lime, and shallots to wrap in betel leaves. This was an incendiary intro to their menu. Two words: be careful! Then we made our way through the menu, ordering in two rounds to avoid to much table crowding. Among the offerings we tried:
-Vietnamese style short ribs skewer (bottom in pic at right)....good flavor, slightly skimpy, but decent.
-Baby Octopus Skewers....could these have been any chewier? Again good seasonings, but way too tough. One of our friends (who owns a restaurant in town and understands such things) was somewhat surprised as she chewed away, going "is this ever going to go away?" A huge step below the perfection that is the Andina Octo Skewer.
-Quail Egg Skewer....a tiny, perfectly cooked quail egg wrapped in bacon with a slightly spicy mayo sauce that I could have eaten dozens of. Delicious!
-Spicy Chiang Mai Sausage...that wasn't that spicy or flavorful, surprising considering all of the listed ingredients.
-Plaa Meuk Ping....was toasted dried cuttlefish (top in pic at right) pressed and served with a sweet chili sauce. Hint: take it out of the toaster earlier next time to avoid that burnt taste.
-Steamed Gai Lan....I love gai lan, and the Ping version was steamed just right, with a nice bite. But what's with the pool of garlicky oyster sauce. The sauce was good, but there was way too much of it.
-Ju Pa Bao....a bone-in pork chop that is served unadorned in a soft roll. This was good, classic street food, but I don't think you'd lose any authenticity by cutting the bone off before serving. It made for a somewhat awkward eating experience.
-Laksa....a Malaysian coconut curry noodle soup. I thought it was pretty good, but three people at our table thought it had a funky element going on.
-Salted Duck Egg Salad...again, some nice spice, but seemed to lack a little soul. Not that exciting.
-Rice Soup....in a pork broth, this was also goo0d, but didn't have the depth or impact it could have.
The overall impression we left with was this is good, and of course has great possibility, but somehow the execution seems to be lacking. Some things were very good, some not so, and it's that unevenness that needs work. While we were sitting at our table we talked with a couple of friends who stopped by to say hi, and when I asked one of them what she thought, she said she had been there the previous week and had a so-so experience, but it was better tonight because now she knows how to order. Which to me isn't good, because you shouldn't need to 'know how to order". Everything should be good.
We were talking about in the car with our restaurant friend, and she posited that sure, Andy really knows this food, and how to prepare it, and what it should taste like, but just because he does doesn't mean it is so easy to teach cooks here. It's one thing to eat it over there with people who have worked with these flavors their whole lives. Quite another to try and teach cooks here what to do with what are unfamiliar ingredients to most of them. It is one of the reasons that I think that a lot of people I know have had somewhat uneven experiences at his Pok Pok restaurant as well. Would I go back to Ping? Sure, but I wouldn't rush back. I liked the vibe, the service was good, and I'm interested to see if things come together.