Cuisine: Thai , Desserts
Menu: View the Menu
We in this business of eating are all victims of sameness to some extent. Restaurants fall into one of several categories. There’s the seasonal/local/New American genre, the regional Italians, the modern Greeks, the Indians, the seafood shacks, the burger joints, the tapas spots, the Gastro-Pubs, and of course, the multiple variations on upscale Chinese and Japanese. You get the idea. We’ve got variety, but at the end of the day, we are all sort of eating food that’s slightly derivative. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll take sheep’s milk gnudi any day of the week. Ditto pork belly, and the meatball du jour. My point is that we aren’t regularly eating food that makes us stop and take notice like it did when Wylie first started at 71 Clinton. Yes, it happens. There’s David Chang, Zak Pelaccio, Brad Farmerie, April Bloomfield, Alex Raij, and Jason Neroni. But it’s just not that common. But the other night, I found it again at P*ONG.Review By: Andrea Strong
P*ONG is the debut restaurant of Pichet Ong, the pastry chef who made a name for himself with his Thai Jewels and Chocolate and Vietnamese Coffee Tart at Spice Market and Durian ice cream and salty-sweet dim sum desserts at 66. But Pichet’s not all about the sugar. He’s also had some experience with salt. He worked for Jean-Georges as a fish cook, and on the savory side at Tabla and Olives. In many ways, then, this restaurant represents a reunion of his two lives as a cook—savory and sweet.
The menu reflects this dichotomy and is set up in three categories of plates meant to be shared—savory, savory and sweet, and sweet. While you can mix ‘n match your menu that way, I’d go for the ten-course tasting menu entitled Pong Suite ($59). It’s really the best way to taste your way through the menu and get an idea of what Pichet is up to.
That’s what we did the other night when Steven, Stephen, Carol and I had dinner at P*ONG, a lovely little restaurant that is peaceful and calming to dine in, with white tables lined in blond wood, super soft ivory leather backed banquettes seated in red linen, and smooth modern lines that feel clean and sleek, not cold and hard. We arrived just after 7:30, and started out with some cocktails ($14), a list that includes a Rhubarb caipirinha (cachaça, wasabon sugar, and lemon), a Madagascar martini (vanilla infused organic vodka, coconut infused rum, rhubarb, lemon oil, and pure Madagascar vanilla), and the Chocolate mojito (rum, mint, cocoa soda, and passion fruit ice). While these drinks are certainly inventive, they are too heavy for the food, not to mention the fact that they are extremely labor-intensive, which strikes me as a problem with a restaurant this small and with so few staff. I’d scale back the number of cocktails and the number of ingredients in them.
Drinks aside, the food at PONG is quite artful and inventive and is some of the most interesting and unique food out there. Pichet is really taking the time to create beautiful dishes that marry different textures, temperatures, and flavors profiles, which makes P*ONG quite a thrilling place to eat.
For instance, a thinly sliced scallop is seasoned and lightly “toasted” (the restaurant doesn’t have gas so all cooking is on hot plates), and rested on top of a squiggly tangle of angel hair soba noodles. It gets topped with a little icy crush of chamomile, thinly diced asparagus and a dollop of salmon roe ($14). While I could have done without the ice, the combination of all those flavors (salty, briny, sweet), textures (creamy, crisp), and temperatures (icy and warm) was magical. I felt every last spot on my palate getting its own high five. And the same thing happened with the burrata, a super creamy almost pudding-like cow’s milk cheese that’s soaked in lemon olive oil and served with a roasted tomato that’s been cooked down to almost candy sweetness and then frozen. To give it some pop and cut the fat, there’s a little mound of caviar, and as a textural crunch, there’s a foccacia chip ($12). This is the world’s best-deconstructed mozzarella and tomato sandwich.
While Pichet can hit the nail on the head, he can also get his thumb. The American Waygu carpaccio ($19) suffered, like those cocktails, from one too many ingredients. The beautiful flavors of the beef were virtually erased by a shiso pesto made with smoked Japanese volcanic salt, pine nuts, and sour cream. This meat deserved to be a little more naked, and instead, it was suffocated. I also felt that way about the tuna tartare ($14) with black olive and Meyer lemon sabayon. While the tuna was diced to fine pristine cubes, the Meyer lemon mousse just about choked the flavor out of that fish. Yes, tuna can stand up to big flavors, but in this case, it recoiled.
But restraint in other places that made up for these missteps. The organic mushroom salad was spot on. Pichet roasts Japanese wild mushrooms with ginger, garlic, shallot, soy and yuzu juice—and those mushrooms act like sponges sopping up all those flavors. Then ‘shrooms are bedded on a nutty, chewy black rice cake (these should be a side dish), dotted with feta and served over red lettuce from Satur Farms. The sweet Maine crab ($15) was also treated right. Lovely lumps of pulled crab were perked up with tarragon, chives, lemon and olive oil, and rested on a whipped dollop of green apple mousse garnished with crisp julienned apples and mint oil. Ta Da! Perfect. The foie gras brulee ($18), while closer to a dessert in flavors, was also quite good. A foie gras custard is caramelized so there’s this crystal cap of sugar on top, and then served on housemade brioche showered with slivered cherries macerated in cognac, with pistachio biscotti crumbs. This was symphonic.
The transition from sweet to savory is done gently and slowly, by way of a few dishes from the “savory and sweet” section of the menu, including the Stilton soufflé with basil ice cream ($12). This dish held so much promise that it did not fulfill. I was expecting a tall, fluffy airy cheese soufflé, which was not the case. The soufflé was thin and crunchy from walnuts, and the Stilton flavor seemed almost baked out of it. The ice cream was good, actually, fresh and creamy and herbaceous. But that soufflé, poor thing. Miso ice cream was the satisfyingly salty frosting that sandwiched an extra virgin olive oil layer cake served with summer strawberries and a strawberry sorbet that practically had a heartbeat it tasted so fresh ($10).
Full on sweets arrive last, and they ran the pendulum between Wow and Eh. The chevre cheesecake croquette ($10) was lush and creamy and crusted in walnut cookie crumbs with a side of lime zest and pineapple salad. (Wow.) But the Vietnamese coffee tapioca affogato layered with mango whipped cream and walnut cookie crumbs ($10) didn’t work for us. (Eh.) “I like bubble tea, and I like affogato,” Carol said after a slurp through a wide pastel-colored straw. “But I don’t like affogato in my bubble tea.” Indeed this was not a peanut butter and jelly moment. But the finale of the night, a tangy lemongrass infused Greek yogurt ice cream over a kafir lime meringue was.
While I didn’t love everything at P*ONG, I was inspired by it, and impressed by Pichet’s passion and vision. He’s taking lots of risks, and in that paradigm there’s great reward but there’s also the potential for downside—not everyone’s gonna like Meyer lemon mousse with their tuna. And that’s okay. Because just as many who don’t like it, will love it. (I was in the minority at the table on that one.)
This much is true: the food is impressive, if not perfect. Take yourself out to P*ONG, sit back and have a night of adventure and intrigue. You can have your pork belly, meatballs, and gnudi tomorrow night.
Neighborhood: Greenwich Village
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