Photograph by Jeremy Kramer
Let’s be clear: I didn’t close my eyes during dinner and imagine the thumping of rickshaws along the lamp-lit streets of Shanghai. There were no fantasies of illicit, post-pho motorcycle rides in the hills above Da Lat, no K-pop serenades over jap chae. Because, let’s be honest, it can be tough to imagine yourself on the other side of the world when you’re shoehorned between a Cadillac dealership and a comedy club on Montgomery Road. But Chef Michael Ly has been quietly elevating Cincinnati’s Asian cuisine for more than 20 years now, first at Pacific Moon until the restaurant closed in 2008, and then as chef-owner of Shanghai Mama’s downtown. His latest venture, Pacific Kitchen, skillfully offers up the continent’s delights without drifting into culinary cover-band territory.
The innocuous raftered space has been around forever. I can only imagine what it looked like when it was Pacific Moon, or in the ’70s when it was a crêpe joint called The Magic Pan, but Ly makes the most of what’s there. He’s painted the rafters pitch black to contrast with softer beige and red porcelain-colored walls, making the room feel clean but not overly ersatz. We met early at the bar for an impromptu sake before dinner. An enthusiast of rice wine, my companion pointed me to a bottle of Mio sparkling, with determined fizz and a gentle, sweet plum flavor. With other friends running late, we braved a second weeknight cocktail, a terrific lychee mojito—grape and pear complementing the mint and lime.
First impressions can be dizzying with this monster of a menu. Ease in with some top-notch Eastern comfort food. Yes, I’m talking yard bird. Korean Fried Chicken is coming for you, dear readers. While you don’t see these slightly bubbly, shatter-crisp wings too far from the coasts (yet), that is about to change. Ly nails it, using a low-gluten rice flour batter that never gums, even when the cooked wings are painted with a thin gochujang pepper sauce (a foil to the fat). The overall command of flavor on Ly’s menu is dumbfounding, given the geographic and culinary reach. A bowl of Thai edamame, rich with garlic-lime flavors, captures the way Thai cuisine stresses balance even as it doubles down on heat. Milder yucca fries arrived with a sassy tamarind yogurt dip, while more classic options like Shanghai dumplings scream with freshness from snappy Napa cabbage.
Then the Cantonese duck dropped. It’s officially my first nominee for Best Damn Dish of 2017. Conversation ceased, chopsticks clattered to the floor, and all 10 hands at the table suddenly snared cuts of the succulent, lacquered bird. There was something playfully apocalyptic about our destruction of that plate, given the 36 hours that Ly confided it takes to prepare—between a honey-vinegar brine to dry the skin, a marinade of star anise, bean paste, and soy within the re-sealed cavity, and the crispy convection oven finish. Even the accompanying baby bok choi was cooked respectfully—the stems reached that almost creamy sweet spot, while the leaves still had a bite.
A plate of Szechuan prawns felt like it was prepped by a native, with its clean bird-chili heat and a feather-light hand with the brown sauce. Dolsot bibimbap had plenty of crispy rice (Spaniards know it as soccarat, Koreans as nurungji) at the bottom of the stone bowl, and the accompanying banchan were soothing yet flavorful, especially the strips of lightly pickled cucumber. Even dishes from farther afield, like a Malaysian goat stew, resonated with rich, original flavors, complete with bone-in, locally butchered goat and potato wedges simmering in a coconut-galangal curry broth.
Ly admits that part of his culinary comeback was fired by his love of dim sum, and his desire to bring more traditional options to Cincinnati. His attempt definitely merits a visit. The talents of chef Chi Lau inspire a packed house on weekend mornings. Long-necked pots of hot oolong and chrysanthemum teas pepper table tops as metal carts trundle by laden with barbecue pork buns, chicken shumai, and shrimp-chive rolls. We also spotted a few hard-to-find Asian vegetables, like baby gai lan, a long-stemmed Chinese brassica somewhere between broccoli and kale that was sauteed in garlic oil to reveal a sweet yet woody flavor. And please, finish with a pineapple roll or two for dessert.
Part of me wishes Ly would add a few more exotic dishes. I’m not talking Tibetan yak butter tea or barley porridge, but given how well he covers familiar dishes, a Som Tam (a Lao-Thai papaya salad) would have been nice, or even a Vietnamese coffee to finish the meal. By the same measure, even the little fire circles on the menu denoting hot dishes feel like mere suggestions. There is enough capsaicin floating around the burbs these days. The extreme caution is overkill.
These are inconsequential quibbles. It’s clear that Ly is cooking out of a sense of pleasure, and his expansive menu is designed to please a variety of palates, not serve as an overwhelming effort to show off his skills. I don’t presume to be the authenticity police, but every dish here just feels like it’s been cooked with spiritual accuracy. Conclusion: Ly’s often humble cuisine is imbued with more than a little magic.
The Pacific Kitchen, 8300 Market Place Lane, Montgomery, (513) 898-1833
Prices $2 (veggie spring rolls)–$38 (king crab legs)
Hours Lunch and dinner seven days; dim sum Saturday and Sunday (Mon–Thurs 11–10, Fri 11–11, Sat 10–11, Sun 10–10).
Credit Cards All major
The Takeaway Modestly priced Pan-Asian cuisine that elevates take-out standards into sit-down classics. Service combines West Coast friendliness with exacting menu knowledge.