Reviews: Kong

Bistro 7’s French-focused chef cooks Chinese at No Libs’ Kong

In my years studying the craft of writing, I’ve heard one axiom stressed above all others: Write what you know. In my years writing about restaurants, I’ve learned that chefs should follow this same advice: Cook what you know. And if it isn’t your native cuisine, well, you should take the time to learn it. That’s been the key to Michael O’Halloran’s success at his Old City BYOB, Bistro 7, for nearly five years. His menu there represents the French-influenced style of cooking that he’s been practicing for more than a decade in restaurants including Chez Panisse and White Dog Cafe.

[sidebar]At Kong, O’Halloran’s follow-up restaurant in Northern Liberties, his footing is much less sure, and his zeal for the cuisine less apparent. Here, the food is Chinese, inspired by the outdoor food stalls that he visits in Hong Kong, where he has traveled almost a dozen times, vacationing or visiting his wife’s family. O’Halloran knew he wanted to bring a version of this, known as dai pai dong in Hong Kong, to Philadelphia, but he quickly discovered that such an exotic cuisine, so far removed from the codified systems of French cooking, resists mastery. “It’s not a recipe-sharing culture, and where you do find written recipes, they’re obviously wrong,” says the chef of his challenges in creating Kong’s menu.

Take, for example, the bread for his trio of buns. O’Halloran struggled to concoct an acceptable recipe, eventually settling on a yeasted dough made without fat. Usually, this style of bun is made without yeast, but with some fat. O’Halloran’s buns are bland and bready, more like a bad slider roll than the smooth, fluffy, slightly chewy buns that traditionally characterize this dish. The pork version’s filling is flavorful, with pickled vegetables and peppery watercress cutting the richness of the pork belly, but the honey-chile glaze blunts the palate with its thick sticky-sweet heft. The Peking duck filling lacks the classic crackling skin.

The “dim sum” section of the menu is also executed without attention to detail. The velvet corn soup is a vegetable stock thickened with canned creamed corn and cornstarch. It lacks freshness and is full of dry shredded chicken. Greasy fried rock shrimp are piled on a mountain of white rice and topped with an unappetizing gob of wasabi-spiked mayo. The overall effect — fatty, generic and humongous — is more evocative of PF Chang’s than Bistro 7. Braised pork belly served in a rice bowl is dessert-like as a result of its four-hour simmer with sugar and cinnamon. As I speared a golf-ball-size orb of candied fat, I wondered how a chef with such obvious cooking chops could have gotten anything this wrong. Such sloppy cooking techniques suggest indifference on the part of the chef; so does his roaming the dining room in his street clothes while a chef de cuisine executes his ill-conceived menu back in the kitchen.

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  • Geoffrey

    I hope that O’Halloran takes these and other similar comments to heart and makes Kong into what we all assumed was going to open in NoLibs.

  • whatever

    The reviewer should write about what she knows … obviously, not Chinese cuisine.

  • moey

    The writer’s critique of Kong is as if he didn’t really eat there. I was there and shared several dishes with my party, and I honestly can say NOTHING disappointed. Everyone at our large party agreed. I hope people don’t take this review seriously and give Kong the chance it deserves- O’Halloran simply can not create a bad meal. I’ve eaten his food long before Bistro when he was cooking around Philly, and he’s always been extremely talented. TRY THIS PLACE OUT!

  • Big Dee

    I think the reviewer has made some incorrect assumptions about what Kong is and is menat to be and has allowed those assumptions to lead her to write a review that is both uninformed and inaccurate. I was totally satisfied with the food and the entire dining experience during my recent visit there.

  • D

    I am amazed at how narrow-minded you are in this review! Should an English chef stick to his/her natve cuisine of fish and chips or meat pies? You give the impression that a primary reason this concept doesn’t work is due to Mr. O’Halloran’s ethnicity. Shame on you! My wife and I have been to O’Halloran’s restaurants over the years and have been thoroughly impressed on every visit. Realize that we live in a global society and a chef of Irish heritage has the ability to master the art of Asian cuisine – and, O’Halloran has done this at Kong.

  • Sean

    Is the reviewer certain she was at the right restaurant? Our party sampled many of the same items, and there were zero misses. We especially liked the rice bowls – very unique and well executed. The service was great and the beer selection had something for everyone. Maybe the reviewer should give this place another try? I know we’ll be going back.

  • Lisa

    We have loved every meal at Kong — and there have been several. Other comments are correct – O’Halloran is branching out and the reviewer completely missed the fact that this restaurant is different with a different style. Less fancy and sophisticated than B7, which is a nice change of pace. FUN and FABULOUS! Don’t miss a great restaurant because of a narrow-minded review!

  • jeff

    I’m actually sorry to say that this review is right on the mark. I SO much wanted to like this restaurant, but most everything we had was ill-conceived or poorly executed or both. Most things were dripping with hoisin sauce for no apparent reason. The buns, as mentioned, were dry. Our (dry, pasty) noodle dish was made with gummy fettuccine. Why? A dish billed as long beans featured green beans. The lamb “dumplings” were actually fried wontons, and dull-tasting at that. Does the kitchen just think we don’t know the difference or don’t care? Do they? It just seemed like a kitchen using vague Chinese flavors in careless preparations. Hard to believe that the chef, or the chef’s mother-in-law, thinks these dishes are representative of Hong Kong street food.

  • Mallory

    This review is spot on. KONG is hugely disappointing considering O’Halloran is involved. Or is he? Michael and Sophia seem to be distracted by becoming part of the Philly restaurant scene and it shows very clearly in the execution of this place. I’ve given it two tries and there are far supieror spots in Chinatown. Most of the positive posts here are by the ambiguous “Anonymous”. Makes you wonder.