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.
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.