Unrated during the pandemic
The name Pichet Ong tends to be preceded by the words “pastry chef,” as in the composer behind the sweet somethings at such Washington restaurants as Brothers and Sisters. Dig deeper into his background, though, and you’ll find that the Thai-born, Singapore-raised, self-taught Chinese talent spent most of his professional life working on the savory side of the menu, early on at the acclaimed Chez Panisse and La Folie in the Bay Area, and later under chefs Todd English in Boston and Floyd Cardoz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York.
Not bad for someone who originally studied to be an architect.
I bring up Ong’s résumé because I called him recently to talk about the cakes and cookies he was making at NiHao, the Chinese restaurant he opened in July with the Peter Chang family in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood. After a few questions, he had one of his own: “You know I’m the executive chef, right?”
I did not. But I intended to ask, because chefs Peter and Lisa Chang now own 11 restaurants with their daughter, Lydia, and there’s no way the couple can be in all those far-flung kitchens all the time. And yet, every time I ordered takeout from NiHao, it tasted as if husband or wife were front and center. Who else could be behind the fabulous Grand Marnier prawns and honey-roasted pork with peanuts that managed to shine even after an hour on the road?
Ong, as it turns out. While he’s quick to credit the Chang family, point to his collaboration with them, and sing the praises of a handful of teammates whose Washington restaurants have gone dark, Ong is the day-to-day minder of the kitchen. NiHao will spark joy in fans of the Changs’ multiple brands (Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, Mama Chang in Fairfax) and delight diners looking for the basics. Indeed, the theme at NiHao, “hello” in Chinese, is “Chinese 101,” says its lead chef.
The only thing basic about the shrimp-and-pork wonton soup is the name of the dish. Otherwise, the combination of ground prawns seasoned with garlic and ground pork marinated with Shaoxing wine — the filling for the fluttery dumplings — is extravagant, especially considering the heady broth in which the wontons are suspended. Chicken feet, pork bones, scallions, ginger and mushrooms lend their essence to the soup, which Ong says simmers for nine hours. The hot bath is time well spent. I could easily just drink dinner.
NiHao’s kitchen is small. A combination smoker, grill and oven outside allow for more possibilities. One of them is a Cantonese dish of pork neck marinated in warm spices, clove and cardamom included, plus honey and a hit of aged vinegar. “Peter likes acid,” says Ong. The dish has crunch going for it, too. Before the sliced pork is sent on its way, the smoke-perfumed dish is showered with fried peanuts.
The tofu dishes are terrific. One slab is cold and silky, sparked with a fresh ginger-soy sauce and decked out with what look like glass baubles but are in reality “century” eggs stained amber from their brine. Ong says he grew up eating the eggs as an after-school snack, and I can only imagine how quickly he bolted home to get a taste. The other draw is hot mapo tofu, carpeted with crumbled mushrooms, pork, black beans — numbing in all the right places.
You can pretty much point anywhere on the menu — stir-fried greens with garlic, cumin-spiced lamb ribs — and hit the jackpot. Best in class applies to prawns swabbed in an aioli made with Grand Marnier, orange zest and white pepper, crowned with a candied walnut, splayed on sliced jicama and tucked into a bed of lettuce. It’s a regal version of the usual mayonnaise-heavy seafood dish. Another looker is marinated steamed cod wrapped in thread-thin vermicelli. The glassy noodles are both decorative and delicious, absorbing the flavor of the soy marinade like a sponge.
The owners say they spend as much per month on takeout packaging as meat, about $4,000, an expense that finds some of the dishes, like Peking duck, in fetching aluminum frames. But NiHao’s food would shine even on a paper plate.
Ong’s desserts are very much to my taste — subtly sweet. In general, the chef says he wants the last course of the meal to be integrated with everything else and not seen as mere indulgence. His fine, buttery walnut cookies highlight the nut, and a loaf of poppy seed cake is distinguished by a tangy yuzu-white chocolate glaze. The most elaborate confection is the pale green and many-layered matcha cake. Every spoonful supplies a cloud of vanilla whipped cream, strawberry mousse, tender cake and the occasional shaving of white chocolate. NiHao sells its cookie dough by the pint, and I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit some of it never made it to a baking sheet.
Trendy Canton couldn’t be a more apt landing pad for the newcomer. Eighteenth-century Baltimore traders once conducted business with their counterparts in the Chinese port of Guangzhou, then referred to by English speakers as Canton, says Lydia Chang.
All the food I sampled from NiHao was eaten an hour away from the restaurant, in my home in Washington. Good news for Changians, as fans of this brand of Chinese cooking are known: NiHao is set to open its 120-seat dining room Oct. 26, although given the pandemic, no more than 50 guests will be allowed inside at a time. Those who aren’t comfortable eating indoors can opt for a spot on NiHao’s patio.
I have a hunch the Peking duck and fried dishes will show better in person, and the atmosphere will set a more convincing Chinese scene than my roost. NiHao features bamboo patterns and unfolds over three floors: A bar with a long communal table leads to the “terrace room,” dressed with banquettes, which segues to a reception space. Lydia Chang says the liquor license from the previous occupant has yet to transfer; meantime, she’s contemplating BYOB.
The restaurateur says the greeting “ni hao” is typically followed by a question, “Have you eaten yet?” Should you find yourself hungry and in Baltimore, the Changs’ latest dining destination is where you want to be, lapping up some basics that are anything but.
NiHao?2322 Boston St., Baltimore.?443-835-2036.?nihaobaltimore.com. Open from noon to 9 p.m. daily for takeout, delivery and, starting Oct. 26, indoor and outdoor dining.?Prices:?Small and large plates, $8 to $68 (for whole Peking duck). Delivery via Uber Eats. Accessibility: Steps at entrance; ADA-compliant restroom. Call ahead for curbside pickup.