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“That Pichet Ong,” a friend of mine quipped, “he sure knows how to open restaurants, but he doesn’t know how to keep them open.”
Indeed, the vaunted pastry chef who once presided over the dessert menu at Spice Market, and frequently appears on TV, has left a string of smoldering wrecks in his wake. Not long ago, year-old P*Ong—a place that merged sweet and savory into a single menu—closed unceremoniously in the West Village. His next project, Village Tart on Delancey Street, offered fantastic baked goods in a clubby, coffeehouse setting, with a pub-grub menu tacked on. It lasted six months. Along the way, the chef did some random consulting, creating desserts at pan-Latin diner Coppelia that were demonstrably better than the regular menu there.
It seemed inevitable that Ong, in his flirtation with weirdly conceived restaurants, would work his way toward opening a relatively normal one for a change. That dining establishment, called Qi (pronounced “chee”), recalls his childhood in Southeast Asia. As he told the Voice‘s food blog Fork in the Road, “Many Thai restaurants are fast food or fusion. Those aren’t good examples for me of Thai food. I’d like something more authentic.” Located on Eighth Avenue just north of the Port Authority, where few foodies dare to tread, the restaurant is related to another spot, also named Qi, on West 14th Street, which specializes in a combination of “Taoist macrobiotics and Hindu Ayurveda herbal treatments.” Ong has no involvement there.
Ong’s Qi is a deep, deep room that rivals nearby Broadway shows for glitzy spectacle, perhaps reminding us that he holds a Master’s in architecture from Berkeley. Or maybe it doesn’t: The stark black-and-white premises is illuminated by 18 chandeliers of wildly varying styles and sizes, most of them not affixed to the ceiling, but goofily to the tables or the floor. A giant Buddha looms near the rear of the dining room in a glass box, and, beyond that, holographic dancers in ethnographic costumes cavort on the walls. Though the food can be excellent, the service tends toward the awful. On my first visit, runners from the kitchen kept bringing new dishes to our unbused table like the scary brooms bearing buckets in Fantasia, piling fresh plates on top of dirty ones, threatening an avalanche. I’m not kidding.
The menu roughly divides into traditional Thai food and food in a Siamese vein invented by Ong. That first collection is larger, and from it the best choices emerge. There’s a nice lime-y larb ($7.90) made with ground chicken, the thick shards of carrot, purple onion, and pepper shooting out of the bowl like bottle rockets. It ain’t your mom’s chicken salad. Indeed, you mostly can’t go wrong with traditional Thai salads. Cashews, mangoes, mint, and ripe tomatoes are featured with duck in a dressing that tastes engagingly of toasted chilis. Only a Burmese tea leaf salad ($5.90) fell flat: It lacked astringency, mainly because the tea leaves were too few and chopped too fine.
The non-experimental menu lists far too many dishes for a group of less than, say, 100 to properly taste and analyze. Which is a shame, since the tourists who frequent the place—already bewildered by the décor, multiple chandeliers, and odd seating arrangements—can’t begin to make sensible choices, and the waitstaff is no help at all. A couple of Chinese-American friends went gaga one evening over a generous plate of five-spice glazed ribs ($6.50), while, on another occasion, a group recently returned from trekking in Nepal raved about a spicy green chicken curry thickened with coconut milk. My favorite dish was Floating Market Stewed Beef Noodle Soup ($11.20), which boasted a dark, sweet broth fragrant with fresh herbs, including Vietnamese mint, two varieties of Asian basil, and a bitter saw-toothed aromatic I have yet to identify.
The preceding dishes all have antecedents in the cooking of Southeast Asia and China, but many of the choices in the chef’s special section do not. While an app of three simply grilled tiger prawns with a green chile–garlic dipping sauce ($9) that tasted almost Mexican is scrumptious, an entrée of beef ribs in a red rum sauce proves so sour and sweet, it could murder the enamel on your teeth. But the biggest disappointment on the special Ongian menu is—gasp!—the desserts.
Some pals and I tried the paltry four that were offered one evening. They came in small drink glasses, and all constituted layered parfaits of mismatched elements, including random-seeming strata of puddings, pureed fruits, brownies, crushed nut brittles, syrups, and ice creams—over-the-top without being good. Gee, maybe the guy needs to hire a pastry chef.