There was so much syrupy hoisin and sweet sauce streaked across my first dinner at Kong - Northern Liberties' new ode to Hong Kong street food - that it was pretty clear Michael O'Halloran's "authenticator" wasn't having the desired effect.
That's a tough spot to put your Chinese mother-in-law in ("authenticator," that is), especially when you and your team of chefs plan to stray as perilously far from the familiar as Kong's kitchen does. But that is exactly the role to which his wife's mother, Suet Ping Chiu, has been elected, the resident expert to lend O'Halloran's wide-ranging menu of dumplings, bar snacks, and noodle soups a little Hong Kong street cred.
I'm not challenging her credentials, but I have a hard time believing that many of the street markets there serve food slathered in as much treacle as O'Halloran's kitchen supplies.
The crispy chicken wings, tender enough from a brine and slow confit, are basted in a honeyed chile glaze that is all sweet and no tingle. The unpleasantly chewy spare ribs taste like they're dredged in a sticky pomade of sesame and hoisin. The house-cured bacon comes atop a lettuce wrapper in such a thick slab of fat-ribboned meat shined with honey that it was like eating a porcine candy bar.
Having visited Hong Kong with his in-laws, O'Halloran, chef-owner of well-liked Bistro 7 in Old City, certainly knows what's authentic. But he has decided to use those inspirations loosely. Those raw pig liver-vinegar dishes and stir-fried fish-gut omelets he enjoyed in that city's "dai pai dong" open air markets? He's assumed (correctly!) they might not fly in Northern Liberties.
But he's overcompensated for Western palates in the liberties he's taken here, and then executed that vision poorly. The "authenticator" can't be blamed for that. This wasn't just a weak take on Chinese inspirations, this was weak cooking, period.
The red-cooked pork belly in soup had the distinction of being both squishy (its fatty edges almost gelatinous) and tough, the meat a chore to chew. The nest of flat Shanghai-style noodles in anise-scented dark broth were at once undercooked and gummy. The wonton soup was full of tender homemade dumplings, but the broth - crystalline in Chinatown's best soup halls - was turned cloudy and bitter with a puree of (burnt) roasted garlic. The dan dan bowl (commonly thin noodles with spicy oil and crumbled pork) was just odd, a tangle of overly thick udon noodle ropes in a thick sludge of a shredded soy-poached chicken and peanut "pesto."
The steamed white bread for the Peking duck buns, typically a delicate cloudlike pouf, is so round and bulky, it's better suited for a burger than roasted duck. The ginger-steamed striped bass suffered from both a soapy aftertaste and a garnish of supposedly braised bok choy that was, in fact, completely raw.
There were a handful of modest successes: a bright arugula salad tossed with crisply fried squid, some pretty dumplings filled with lamb and pickled eggplant, a mound of crispy rock shrimp in wasabi mayo with sweet-and-spicy walnuts, and a plate of deep-fried asparagus, though these also came with yet more of that gooey sesame-hoisin as a dip.
At the time, I wasn't necessarily pondering how many bells. For Kong, I was thinking about a gong.
Some of those initially clumsy flavors had been smoothed out enough by my second visit to taste a glimmer of hope. By then, it seems, O'Halloran had taken over the nightly kitchen reins at Kong himself and sent his chef de cuisine back to Bistro 7.
There was a notable overall difference. The three-way pork dumplings were splendidly made, with a triple dose of pig (red-cooked, bacon, and fresh ground) tucked into plump half-moons of tender dough. The Peking duck buns were less drowned in hoisin, and somehow also more delicate. The mu shoo pork and scallion flatbread wasn't much for presentation - like a squashed wrap sandwich sliced onto the plate - but the flavors of the tender meat, ginger, shiitake, and crispy pancake were hard to resist.
The stir-fried egg was also a wonderful surprise, the egg quickly blended into a loose and ribbony omelet filled with jasmine rice, crab, and sweet bits of chewy Chinese sausage. It was a unique plate of comfort I'd absolutely return for - an effortless update to tired egg foo young.
That such come-back highlights should be so hard to find, though, is an unexpected letdown from a chef with a good track record. I've been a fan of O'Halloran's French-centric BYOB, and this concept is a promising one. Priced right with nothing over $16 for the younger Northern Liberties crowd, it seems like a good fit for the former Sovalo space, which has been moodily Asianized with dangling birdcages, distressed walls scrawled with reproduced Kowloon graffiti, and a soundtrack that bops to Chinese gangsta rappers MC Hotdog and MC Jin.
And yet, even with O'Halloran on site, a night at Kong can feel off-kilter. For example, if the chef planned to visit the dining room, as he did numerous times throughout the evening, why would he dote on a single table of V.I.P.'s to the complete exclusion of the rest of the guests? It's a good thing our waitress, Julianna Lindgren, was so well-versed and such a charmer that we didn't feel left out. (Someone behind the bar, though, should be more careful to avoid the lime wedges with shriveled and dry brown skin.)
And there were still far too many dishes that tasted like experiments in progress.
The hot-and-sour shiitake soup was so thick, it could have been a gumbo. And while many of the expected flavors were there - the sour, the spice - they landed on my tongue at all the wrong times, pushed into a jumble by a cloying sweetness on the front, a powerfully earthy wave from mushrooms, a garish star anise punch, and finally, a bratty spice that refused to quiet when I went back for another spoonful.
And why is it so hard for Kong to properly cook greens? If the bok choy wasn't carelessly left raw (as it was repeatedly on my first visit), then it too often still harbored sandy grit, ultimately dimming a bowl of duck noodles in dark five-spice broth that was otherwise Kong's best "Big Bowl." O'Halloran's determination to use delicate butter lettuce, meanwhile, is a repeated bad choice. The lettuce simply wilted into flimsy wrappers beneath slabs of hot bacon. And the butter leaves were a total flop once braised in the oyster sauce shallots, turning as limp as lettuce scooped from the sink after washing the salad dishes.
Mastering the art of greens - an essential aspect of Chinese cooking - seems an elemental place for Kong to begin reestablishing its kitchen cred. A recently introduced dumpling menu, playing to its strength, is another good idea. Finally then, Kong may benefit from the wisdom of the authenticator, and be able to more successfully define its own interpretation of Hong Kong flavors for the streets of Philadelphia.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Fond in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.