Not-So-Great Wall

Written by Joseph Alexiou on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.


 

Michael & Ping’s, Michael Bruno’s Chinese eatery in Gowanus, looks great on paper: very reasonable prices, a hip location and a “green certified restaurant” status (according to a restaurant association called Dine Green). It’s clear from the start that the restaurant has its heart in the right place; however, the most important part of this four-month-old eatery—the food—is in disarray.

 

The concept is reinvented “Modern Chinese take-out,” with the same familiar dishes spun with (some) locally sourced, organic and free-range ingredients. Also there’s less salt, fat and oil and no MSG— foreshadowing not to be ignored.

 

 

The new, floor-to-ceiling windows speak to the restaurant’s industrial past as a woodworking studio but also set the space apart from the still-grungy neighborhood. The interior—with exposed bricks, an open kitchen and a wheelchair ramp that curves along the left wall from the entrance—is inviting and modern, but not intimidating.

There’s no table service since the show here is fancy take-out (it’s open for lunch and dinner during the week and after 4 p.m. on weekends), so you order and pick up your grub from a polite woman at the counter, a vantage point from which you can also observe the other employees stir-frying your bean curd and lighting low-calorie oils on fire.

The menu has plenty of familiar items— appetizers include roast pork spring rolls (two for $3) and scallion pancakes stuffed with moo-shu chicken (two for $5.75), and classic entrées like lo mein ($9.75 for chicken, shrimp, pork or veggie) and General Tso’s chicken ($9.50) are available—but it’s not photocopied from your corner Chinese place. Some culinary curve balls include bao buns served with pickled cucumber (two for $5), a bahn mi sandwich ($8.75) or, curiously, a baked curried chicken samosa ($2.50 and described as “empanada style”).

I started off with a beef satay with spicy peanut sauce ($3.75), in which the meat was tender and the peanut sauce was fresh, if not terribly spicy. This was followed by an order of steamed vegetable and tofu dumplings ($4.50)—refreshing and crunchy. Next I ordered the wonton soup, a cloudy broth with soft pork dumplings and slivers of pork meat, both chewy in texture, but lacking in taste. The murky soup looked unappealing and was hardly savory. It lacked the satisfying saltiness of the greasy take-out variety, and while it grew on me after a few spoonfuls, I was not inspired enough to finish it.

Next up was roast pork with snow peas and baby corn, accompanied by Himalayan red rice ($8.75) and shrimp pad Thai ($8.25). Both arrived looking gorgeous: the colorful mixture of pork, green snow peas and appealing baby corns alongside a neat cylinder of dark red rice; the pad Thai a mess of vegetables, translucent noodles and glossy shrimp. My vegetables were perfectly prepared—crunchy but not undercooked— but the pork was about as flavorful as a puff of steam. The same for the Himalayan red rice: I expected something exotic, or at least a nutty, wild character. Instead I got pile of uninspired grain that even white rice would trump. The pad Thai presented the same lackluster results. My date and I got about halfway through our meal before laying down the chopsticks.

Michael & Ping’s
gets an E for effort. The restaurant did, after all, chose a hip nook in
Gowanus, next door to the rising-star pie shop 4 & 20 Blackbirds
and one block from the beloved Bar Tano. But unlike nearby
establishments, the cuisine at Michael & Ping’s lacks any kind of
bold attempt at distinctive, memorable taste. Perhaps the eatery focused
too much on saving energy and not enough on preparing a menu. Maybe
there’s no way to make healthy, Americanstyle Chinese food that also
tastes good. But most likely when we want General Tso’s chicken and
wonton soup, we’re looking for the salt and grease that have become not
just additions but essential ingredients to our favorite bastardized
Chinese dishes.

>> Michael & Ping’s 437 3rd Ave. (at 8th St.), Brooklyn, 718-788-0017.

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