- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008

There are those among us who remember when a Chinese restaurant was an emporium of noodles, chop suey (which the Chinese never heard of) and maybe General Tsos chicken

That was a long time ago. General Tso has gone to the parade ground in the sky, and upscale Chinese restaurants, with linens as white and silver as heavy as in any faux-French restaurant, celebrate Asian fusion cuisine. Ping by Charlie Chiang’s, for example (albeit without the linens).

“Ping” is derived from the Mandarin word meaning “best” or “of the highest standard.” It’s not easy to live up to such a benchmark, and Ping by Charlie Chiang’s doesn’t always make it, but it tries, and the dishes are beautiful to behold.

The Chiang family owns several restaurants in Washington and environs. The one on restaurant row in the Shirlington area was closed for six months for renovations, and now this elegant American-Chinese restaurant has a long bar, attractive contemporary lighting, lots of wood, a decor of red and black, and an ambitious Asian fusion menu.

The menu offers small plates (not really all that small), soups, salads, main courses, vegetable and noodle dishes and even sushi. Among the small plates, or appetizers, is an excellent version of braised pork belly in a steamed bun. It is delicious, the fat absorbed by the bun and enhanced by hoisin sauce and a slice of crunchy cucumber.

Spice-encrusted calamari are cut into slim, finger-length rectangles, lightly coated in flour, fried and then tossed in a wok with spices and chopped green and red peppers. The chef should serve them on something absorbent, as the calamari sticks leave a diner’s fingers a bit greasy even after ritual licking.

West Lake Dragon Well shrimp are bland, served on a bed of steamed edamame beans, making an uninteresting and unsuccessful dish. Vietnamese summer rolls with a filling of slivered carrots, chicken, rice noodles and romaine, on the other hand, are cool, refreshing and reminiscent of the best of Saigon.

A small but substantial plate of “shiny, slippery shrimp” is savory and splendid. The menu describes the shrimp as “crunchy tempura-like shrimp, stir-fried with garlic and tossed with a vinegar-sriracha sauce that’s slightly sweet and slightly spicy.” In fact, the battered shrimp are supersweet and barely spicy, but when served piping hot, they’re irresistible. Sriracha sauce is a Thai condiment made of ripened chili peppers, vinegar, salt, sugar and garlic.

Honey-tempura chicken is another sweet dish, a version of the traditional lemon chicken.

Flaming steak Christiana, recommended by our waitress, was indeed flamed at the table. The large pieces of what appeared to be flank steak are wok-seared to almost well done and served in a heavy dark sauce on a bed of sliced raw onions. For this dish, the steak, although a tasty cut, should have been tender to the fork (or chopsticks).

Cheese fried rice, a Hong-Kong dish fusing East and West, substitutes little pockets of melted mozzarella for soy sauce, and it’s a successful house specialty.

Five-spice Peking duck is a house specialty, too: a half duck presented in thin slices covered with crisp skin on a bed of lettuce. The dish is served with matchstick cucumbers and green onions and either steamed buns or the traditional pancakes. The accompanying sauce is a mild five-spice concoction rather than the usual hoisin. Our duck had wonderfully crispy skin, but the meat was tough and the pancakes too thick.

Red pepper rosemary chicken is made up of small nuggets of marinated chicken fried until crisp, but these were dry and hard as well. The dish is pretty under a sprinkling of red peppers and rosemary but not up to Charlie Chiang’s “highest standard.”

All dinner items are available at lunch. The three courses of the $8 “Lucky 8” lunch special include a choice of one among about two dozen entrees with rice. Through this week, Ping is running a Summer Olympic Pentathlon Prix Fixe Menu. Five courses for $28.88, with wine pairings available for $45.88.

RESTAURANT: Ping by Charlie Chiang’s, 4060 Campbell Ave. (formerly South 28th Street), Arlington; 703/671-4900.

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