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Gang Kitchen Reviewed

Troy Johnson reviews Gang Kitchen

By Troy Johnson | Photos by Luis Garcia

Gang Kitchen Reviewed

Gang Kitchen

Gang Kitchen

A pizza guy does Asian fusion and it’s nowhere near as bad as that sounds

The only thing alive in here is the people.

No Flowers. No plants. Just concrete walls and black beams and menacing industrial fans that spin at a morbidly slow pace. Then there’s a 20-foot graffiti art of an Asian woman who looks like maybe she knows where the dead bodies are because she put them there.

Gang Kitchen is severe. The aesthetic of owner Jon Magnini (who’s  also behind BASIC and URBN) seems to be: Find an industrial building, gut it, put in chairs.

It’s real sexy, though-one of the last creations from modernist local architect Graham Downes, who tragically died this year. Chains dangle 20-plus feet from the ceiling, holding the hostess stand like a biker wallet. The stair banisters leading to the second level are semi- rusted slabs of metal. Blacksmith- chic. There is zero to no reclaimed wood, thanks be to the gods.

Gang Kitchen

345 Sixth Avenue



Shanghai beef

Crispy calamari salad

Spicy gingerbread ice cream sandwich

Gang also represents Mangini’s most ambitious culinary effort. BASIC and URBN are mostly pizza-and-drinks joints (highly suc- cessful ones). For Gang, he pulled in longtime chef pal Jo Ann Plympton, whose long career includes two of her own restaurants (one of which, Bridge Café, got kudos from the New York Times) and a bit of training at three-star Michelin Le Gavroche. During the last 12 years she’s been a chef at CB5 Restaurant Group, creating high-end concepts (Asian, Italian, American) for fancy hotels.

CB5 is where she met Mangini, who pulled her back into the restaurant kitchen full-time for this Asian fusion concept.

Asian fusion. It makes food snobs break out in blotches. Under- standable. Americans don’t have centuries of culinary bedrock to an- chor our identity. When we see an American chef do Asian food, it not only feels like artifice, but also like we’re dismissing our own uniquely national cuisine. It also seems like a cheap way to add cultural cachet to a concept.

The solution is to not give a damn. Authenticity has its place, which is not in a fusion restaurant. Joël Robuchon and David Chang both fuse. And Plympton brings a little cream, butter, and Culinary Institute of America-grad saucing skills to Asian dishes at Gang. The white woman also makes one hell of a scallion pancake.

Her menu starts with a bevy of Eastern gluten. The edamame wontons are excellent, puréed with butter, cream, and white truffle oil and finished with mushroom broth and nori. Truf- fle oil—a potent, crude chemical imitation of the real thing—can destroy dishes, but Plympton uses the right amount of restraint. It also shows up in her mushroom potstickers, filled with diced por- tobello, white, shiitake, and por- cinis, plus cream and panko and finished with ponzu sauce. This is excellent, just different enough from the truffle-edamame. The steamed shrimp dumplings were pretty uninspiring by comparison.

Like kale chips? Then you gotta try Plympton’s crispy spinach. Dried, crispy, lightly fried with oil, it’s basically a really healthy green disguised as fair food. Kindly resist shoving your face into the bowl.

Lobster crêpes are unsurpris- ingly good. Maine lobster is tossed with shiitakes, shallots, chiles, ginger, and garlic in a lobster- coconut sauce, then tucked into housemade scallion crêpes. Her barbecued pork spare ribs are fine, daintily messy with a citrus- sweet glaze. The only misstep we found at Gang was noodles. A buckwheat noodle salad in roasted peanut sauce is mistakenly served hot and a little dried out. The pork belly pad Thai is also a little dry. Too bad, because the fatty pork cubes are perfectly cooked and the dish otherwise pops with flavor, with veggies, sunflower sprouts, fish sauce, and peanuts. Crispy calamari salad, though not terribly crispy mixed in with the miso vinaigrette, has excellent flavor, and it’s not shy with the heat index.

For entrees, the barbecued salmon couldn’t have been cooked better, with a blowtorched honey-soy-miso skin that lifts easily off to barely pink-centered meat (even if the accompanying greens in Chinese mustard sauce were fairly bland). The roasted Peking duck with black vinegar sauce (black and balsamic vin- egar, cream, stock, cream, pepper) is served with sake and spiced pineapple, plums, grapefruit, and orange. It’s a chippier riff on the traditional sweet-fruit accompani- ment for duck. And again with the scallion cakes, good enough to eat out of hand by themselves. The whole fried fish was just so- so—a striped sea bass deep-fried in tempura and served with a red chile sauce that was a little too tart (sugar, fermented black beans, fish sauce, rice vinegar).

But that Shanghai beef—a dish so stereotypically gringo- Asian that Minute Rice has an official version—is a real swooner. Seven ounces of aged beef in its whoa-Jesus sauce (shallot, ginger, garlic, red chile, mirin, soy, good ol’ butter). A heap of fried potato strings under Chinese mustard vinaigrette make it one hell of a meat-and-potatoes offering.

Don’t skip desserts here. The housemade spicy gingerbread ice cream sandwich (actually crème fraîche gelato) with a side of pineapple-mango-habañero salsa, yuzu curd, and cilantro is excellent. Sip your tea and wait for it to soften just right, because it’s served rock hard. If you’re more of a churro/baked goods type, try the banana spring rolls with a walnut frangipane, fried and dusted with cinnamon and sugar—served with ginger gelato and miso caramel.

Plympton doesn’t shy away from a few restaurant kitchen shortcuts—namely truffle oil and butter—but it doesn’t matter when it tastes this good. Combine that with the Blade Runner-meets- Japanese horror flick décor and creative cocktails from URBN bartender Jason O’Bryan (try the Broken Oath, with chamomile-in- fused bourbon, lemon, and apricot liqueur)… and, well, I couldn’t find much of anything to complain about at Gang.

Oh, the chairs are shorter than the banquettes, so whoever sits on the banquette is taller than their dining companion (good for the Tom Cruises of the world, I guess). There, that’s persnickety. Otherwise, just go.

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San Diego, CA