Sound Check: 77 decibels; Must speak with raised voice
The Signature Theater does not have a lock on drama in Shirlington. Indeed, stiff competition is less than a block away, at Ping by Charlie Chiang's, an updated version of the former Charlie Chiang's. Like the relocated theater, the revamped restaurant involves a handsome new set for its performances. More than $1.5 million was poured into the location last year, and it was money well spent. Patrons of the restaurant now find themselves looking at wraparound glass walls, an ocean of red, see-through metal slats to carve up the large space and a smart bar that features a couple of sushi chefs at one end. On a block packed with places to eat, Ping stands out for its good looks.
It does not, alas, distinguish itself with its cooking, much of which resembles the food you'd find at a run-of-the-mill Asian carryout. The long menu, with its pages of "small plates," Asian headliners and steamed "revolution diet" selections, seeks to embrace every possible whim. But the kitchen is no match for the dozens of dishes. What's not greasy (shredded pork with broccoli, chow fun noodles) is dry (roasted chicken dusted with garlic "crunchies") or saddled with a problem (the cloying sauce for otherwise decent dumplings suggests a melted peanut butter cookie). As for the sushi, the fish is cut too large, and the rice tastes as if it's never encountered rice wine vinegar -- or any other seasoning.
There are a few encouraging moments. Wonton soup finds light, meat-filled dumplings in a clear, scallion-laced broth, and fried "lemongrass" shrimp remain juicy beneath their batter -- although the lemongrass is applied with too light of a hand.
Ping is a Chinese word denoting good taste. It's also an ingredient that's missing from too much of the menu at this beautiful but underwhelming stage set of a restaurant.
-- Tom Sietsema (Sunday, May 16, 2008)