Monday, October 27

Pin Pong Culinary Experience

I've had a soft spot for Ping Pong ever since I came to Chicago,
because it was one of the first restaurants I tried. At a time when I
was still adjusting to big changes in my life, it was an island of
stability where I'd go with my friend Justin. Back then it was a
start-up with four tables, the same white walls and small white
tables, mismatched plates and silverware, and awkward waitstaff who
would stop to have conversation. It has changed a lot in the last few
years, expanding, and now extremely popular.

The restaurant now oozes style--the orange sign, the green lighting,
black stripes on the windows, candles at every table, Sex in the City
projected on Tord Boontje wallpaper, techno music blasting, and
attractive waiters that have turned it into a place where you want to
look good, just in case that guy at the next table might be looking at
you (the likelihood of this never prevents us from having this
fantasy). The over-the-top sensation both charms and titillates.
There are smaller touches as well: the cherry wood bowls, the
soapstone on which the chopsticks rest. But most of this is faux
idiosyncracy, easy thrills. As far as food goes, Ping Pong has lost
its way.

Ping Pong has always been at its best when it's offering twists on
traditional favorites. Salt & pepper calamari is one of their best
dishes, with the calamari served on a generous bed of onions,
jalapenos and garllic. The sashimi tuna dip, made with basil,
cucumber, sesame mayo, white and black sesame and served with wonton
crackers, is another classic, though it contains less tuna than it
used to. These were solid dishes made to please.

The sections of the menu used to be labeled by verbs--share, eat,
drink--but are now labeled more predictably--starters, sides, chicken,
etc. And though more extensive than it used to be, most of the menu
is various permutations of basically the same dish. It's always
exasperating to go with a white person to an Indian restaurant only to
have them order chicken tikka masala. I felt the same way when a
friend ordered orange chicken, which was lacking in orange peel, spice
and tanginess. The sauce on the Yu-xiang eggplant with pork was
similarly generic and the eggplant was undercooked. The classic fried
rice, one of the better dishes because of the novelty of making fried
rice using brown rice, was well executed, but, like the other main
dishes, was ungenerous in its portion of meat.

I was heartened, though, by a couple of things. Before the meal, the
waiter brought out warm moist towelettes for us to clean our hands, a
nice variation on the tradition of bringing hot towels to the table
after the meal. And the wheat gluten salad, with shitake, bamboo tips
and tree fungus, stayed true to this classic Buddhist vegetarian dish.
It was even charmingly served on the cheap knockoff dishware you'd
find in Chinatown. And when the fortune cookies came at the end of
the meal on a ping pong racket, I was reminded of the Ping Pong I knew
three years ago.

The best Chinese restaurants find their roots in family, and the pride
of feeding a loved one. While it was never authentic, the tastes at
Ping Pong used to be richer, more unusual and surprising. Judging
from the crowds and the wait time, most people don't seem to mind.
They're young people looking for pleasure after a day's work, carrying
with them the anxieties and insecurities of any young person. They're
willing to be lulled by the sensory overload. After my meal, I walked
across the street and passed by Wakamono, which has the same owner as
Ping Pong. Outside the restaurant was a moment of magic--a table and
some chairs, surrounded by potted plants. Right next to Broadway St.,
this little patch of space seemed to have been transported from Paris,
oblivious to the hustle and bustle around it. I then realized that,
while Ping Pong was never about food made with love and care, Ping
Pong isn't (or shouldn't be) about hedonism either. At its best, it
offers a place of refuge, an escape from our chaotic world. If it has
recently lost some of its soul, it would do well to remember this.

-Ian Le