AFTER EATING several dishes in the airy Tokyo Rose chic of Ping, Andy Ricker's new downtown izakaya-style eatery, I wasn't expecting to have a transcendent experience. But then it happened: a lost memory emerged from my plate.
As I tucked into a dessert of pandanus ice cream, rice, chocolate sauce, and peanuts, I was confronted with the recollection of a favorite childhood rice pudding. Ice cream melted into the rice, providing creamy texture. Peanuts and chocolate combined to create rich nutty tones. It was an adult version of the lunchtime treat I craved as a kid.
Restaurants do not operate in a vacuum. They must endure the remembrance of meals past. A dish can either best our memories or fail in comparison. This may be a problem for Ping, especially when it's compared to the aggressive menu and demanding flavors of Ricker's other restaurant, Pok Pok.
I was hoping Ping would offer Pok Pok-like boldness in its offerings. Instead, it's downright tame. Ricker has described the menu at Ping as "Asian drinking food." The focus is on small plates (skewers, buns, noodles) paired with sake and creative, powerful cocktails (shochu and sweet drinking vinegar, or a leveling Singapore sling).
Dining at Ping, I found nothing particularly bad—the eatery would be fine for a frivolous evening with friends in downtown Portland—but knowing what Ricker is capable of, I wanted so much more. Inflated expectations going unfulfilled? Who would imagine?
The ju pa bao ($7), essentially a pork fat-fried pork chop placed on a soft roll, surprised me with blandness at first—more a product of the roll than the pork. As the roll began soaking up the chop juices, however, the dish became savory and tender.
The pork bun was better ($4). The doughy steamed bun revealed a sweet-and-salty pocket of tender shredded pork that paired well with accompaniments of wispy fresh cilantro and crunchy fried onions. Still, there was nothing in the flavor to really set it apart from pork buns found in a multitude of Portland Asian markets and Vietnamese bakeries.
A plate of pork collar with a spicy dipping sauce ($7) had a flavor familiar to hundreds of Chinese take-out meals. Well executed, but not crave worthy.
Of the skewers, chicken hearts ($2.50) were adequate—tender with slight mineral notes—but nothing I'd seek out.
A spicy mama ramen ($8) offered thin broth with excellent chili heat and lovely flavor from tamarind and fish sauce, but the noodles (not house made) were essentially blank. The prawns were small and far too chewy, and the strange gray "bouncy pork," didn't add much.
If I sound a bit apologetic, it's because I am. If I'd never eaten at Pok Pok, I'd probably be quite happy with Ping. In fact, there were several fantastic dishes that only deepened my disappointment, mostly due to the fact that I wanted the entire menu to be as good. The aforementioned pandanus dessert ($7) is just one example.
One should also consider the quail egg skewer ($3.50)—like magnum pearls lined on a bamboo stick and wrapped with bacon. This is drinking food. Topped with a tangy mayonnaise sauce, these little morsels were an enigma. How could so much flavor and texture emerge from such a small package? Each tiny egg was so rich I had to rest between each one, savoring and marveling.
Another great dish was pet pha lo ($11), a duck leg stewed in a rich aromatic broth with egg, mustard greens, and shiitake mushrooms. The duck meat came off the bone easily and yielded tenderly to the teeth with that bottomless meaty flavor found in well-prepared fowl. When dipped in a vinegary yellow chili dip, the flavors became expansive. Everything was represented: A tangy sour burst against a light cinnamon sweetness, paired with a savory shiitake-tinged broth, and just a hint of heat. Absolutely outstanding. So why wasn't everything else?
I fully expect Ping to do just fine as it is. The place is admittedly gorgeous with its contrast of distressed antiquity and slick bamboo style. The ceilings are lofty. The wall of antique radios adds a bit of whimsy, and the whole vibe is upbeat and clubby. There are enough people downtown that will thrive on the buzz and novelty of this pretty restaurant. But for the committed gastronomes that have marked Pok Pok as one of Portland's high temples of Asian cuisine, the food at Ping may leave them shrugging indifferently. Until Ricker's menu is injected with a bit more bravado, the transcendent moments will remain elusive.