Heavy reliance on prefab ingredients also makes Kong feel like a halfhearted effort. The dumpling dough, so rough-hewn and thick as to muffle the tasty filling, is brought in from a New York City purveyor. Some noodles are made in-house, like the dense fettuccini-like strands found in the lamb noodle bowl, but others, like the pasty udon in the dan dan noodles, are bought. The lap cheong, a Chinese sausage that’s part of the stir-fried egg dim sum, comes from Chinatown. This approach runs counter to what we expect from a chef who is making his own charcuterie at Bistro 7. Restaurants need not make every little thing from scratch, but premade elements should be selected with discrimination.
Without a tool kit of Chinese cooking techniques, O’Halloran substitutes his French sensibilities. For example, he says that practically every dish at Kong begins with a mirepoix, sautéed aromatic vegetables. “That’s completely foreign to Chinese cooking,” admits the chef. A French-stew smell wafts from the braised lamb noodle bowl, but there’s little in the way of Chinese flavors. The chicken wings are slow-poached in oil, confit-style, another essentially French method. The best dish I sampled, a coconut rice pudding, is more or less plucked from the Bistro 7 menu. It’s a dish O’Halloran knows, and the taste of his confidence and experience here is unmistakable.
Kong lives in the old Sovalo space, now sporting a graffiti-tagged concrete wall to invoke the gritty outdoor eating environment of O’Halloran’s inspiration. The stylish restaurant seems at home on this hip stretch of North 2nd Street. O’Halloran says he wanted to create a restaurant that fits the neighborhood’s personality: comfortably between the fluorescent-lit grime of Chinatown and the elegance of now-shuttered Susanna Foo. His instincts about that are right; the city would eat up such a restaurant. But only if the flavors are as good as the chef’s intentions.