I have a table at Ping. I’m not sure how it happened — my table is, after all, an unlikely table, hovering in the distance between the remote and the central; I never ask to be seated there, but even if it is a strange-ish late-afternoon lunch hour with few diners, I find myself, fatefully, in my usual spot, seated against the towering windows contemplating fate and pork buns.
At Ping by Charlie Chiang’s the pork buns are deconstructed. The steamed bun, soft and delicately pure white, is wrapped taco-style around a piece of braised porkbelly and wide, thin slices of cucumber, and is served with hoisin sauce on the side. Liberally sauced and eaten with the fingers, the crunch of the cucumber plays against the ultra softness of the bun of the Dung Po braised pork and counters the sweetness of the sauce. I love this little dish. It is not the most ambitious on the menu, but it is a discreet, iconic food broken down into its best elements and presented artfully.
There is something artful in almost every element of Ping. The interior of the restaurant is modern and design oriented without being too threateningly cool (as are the young wait staff.) Slatted partitions divide the long space, allowing a play of light and shadow, suggesting both bamboo and shoji screens, but with a clean and modern transparency. Reds and metallics turn up the volume and balance the natural woods. It is a restaurant that both looks good and feels good.
At Ping I end up in conversation. I go for lunch because it is fast, affordable and tasty. The Modern Bento Box lunch and the Lucky 8 both offer a mix-and-match approach that allows one to choose from a variety of small plates in combination. It is a way to eat healthily or decadently, but in scale (and a great way to get a few tastes of miso soup, brown rice and seaweed salad and still eat the braised pork belly.) Inevitably, the broad tables and comfortable chairs lead to exceptional conversation.
I know that a restaurant can’t be blamed for making my lunches run long (especially when, generally, the service is attentive) when it is because I am talking (I listen, too — there has to be time for tasting the unusual but surprisingly light vegetable and cheese fried rice, made with mozzarella it has a creamy finish but is not the least bit sticky or heavy, dairy is making its way into more and more aspects of modern Asian cuisine) that time slips away.
These are the things I talk about at Ping: travel, porkbelly, fate, what a lychee really tastes like, how to make a great cocktail, the future, garlic, other really important things. On a night when I eat with co-workers and not, sadly, at my special table, I have a great conversation about how to record what one encounters while traveling. I had just tasted moist Lamb 3-Cup studded with toasted whole garlic cloves and wonderfully aromatic, earlier I had discussed the fermentation process for Hou Hou Shu sparkling Nigori Saki that is wonderful, sweet up front it mellows on the tongue to the taste of clean, light rice. Beautiful. Even the Roasted Chicken, served with its skin on and topped with loads of crispy toasted garlic was delightful. The over-riding theme of every conversation: how do you capture it, how do you describe it, how do you keep the ineffable with you?
Ping is the reincarnation of the Charlie Chiang’s that was once at the same location. It is cleaner, tastier, more stunning than its old incarnation, but you can still feel the old restaurant underneath the menu and in the cooking of the more traditional fare (and in the less successful dishes like Scallops in a Minced Shrimp Shell.) Ping is new but not wholly original, creative but not groundbreaking; it is a place of solid leave taking, where you go in for a pork bun and leave with a taste for sparkling sake, or order a Kirin Ichiban and sit in the sun, run into a friend talk about a recent trip to Tokyo, and end up drinking beautiful cocktails, and somehow leave with a plan to meet in Brussels in August. Is it Fate or is it Ping? Either way it tastes great.