Wednesday, July 23, 2008

First Look: Ping by Charlie Chiang

As my cab pulls into Shirlington shopping center I can't help but be impressed. Even my cab driver comments on the number of restaurants packed into these few square blocks of carefully planned community.

Ping by Charlie Chiang
sits at ground zero of this culinary maze of bakeries, ice cream shops and ethnic food outlets, on corner allowing passers by a glimpse in, or customers a view out of its big windows. The space is remarkable and well put together. Split into three sections - a bar and two distinct seating areas - Ping looks a lot bigger than it actually is, and provides plenty of room to sit back, spread out, and breathe.

Ping is the seventh location in Virginia for the Charlie Chiang family, and the tenth in the Washington D.C. area. But talking with Christiana Chiang, Charlie's wife and co-owner of the mini-empire, Ping is special.

This isn't your parent's Chinese restaurant. Hell, this isn't even your Chinese restaurant. This is Chinese food 2.0.

No more dull looking noodley mess out of a paper box. You'll find cuisine that attracts the eye first, something very important to Christiana, and then takes a hold of the rest of your senses.

The menu, which is made up of "best of" dishes from the Chiang's travels, covers a good portion of Asia - from Thailand to China to Japan - with a surprisingly impressive sushi menu complimenting the traditionally heavier Chinese dishes.

Working my way through the menu, it's easy to see Christiana's influence. Everything looks clean and vibrant, lacking the traditional heavy sauce and grease you normally get with Chinese food.

Shiny Slippery Shrimp, a dish that tastes better than it sounds has a nice crunch to it, and a solid garlic flavor. Garlic is something you'll see a lot of here, sometimes to a fault, but if you're a fan, you're in luck. Other highlights include a sashimi soup that's light and flavorful, a lamb version of "Pot au Feu" that's tender and rich, and pepper steak cubes with just the right amount of heat.

Of course there are some dishes that just don't work, mostly due to a bit too much tweaking with traditional recipes. Vegetables and rice with some sort of cheese that looked and tasted bland, and a scallop dumpling that again had some sort of cheese on top. Lesson here, avoid the stuff with cheese and stick to what the Chiangs know best - Chinese food that's better than what you're used to.

It's hard to believe that Ping won't succeed. The Chiang family knows what they're doing, and it shows here. This is a restaurant that will grow with the neighborhood around it, and its versatility - from its large bar (with four huge flat screen TVs) to its diverse menu - will cater to the business lunch rush and the family dinner crowd alike. This is an impressive cornerstone in an impressive neighborhood; a restaurant that holds up well in the long tradition of the Chiang family.

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