Old favorites, big changes
by Bix Engels
What's your favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor?" I get that one a lot. For me, and I assume many others, the short list has long included Pacific Rim by Kana.
Even when newer eateries turned my head, Pacific Rim was still there, in the elegant stretch of Liberty alongside the upscale and also oft-favored Bella Ciao and West End Grill. It's existed in its current form since 2001, when chef Duc (pronounced "Duke") Tang partnered with Y. B. Ko, whose parents launched the original Kana as a Korean restaurant in the early 1980s. Ko moved to Hawaii in December 2006, leaving Tang the sole owner.
In the pan-Asian food arena, Tang has unique street cred-his life has intersected with multiple geographical points on the actual Pacific Rim. Born in Vietnam to a Chinese-Vietnamese family, he lived in the Philippines and Hong Kong before arriving in southern California. After Yale, he returned to the West Coast for graduate studies in Vancouver; he met Ko there and ended up moving to Ann Arbor to be Pacific Rim's chef. After his nomadic youth, he is happily ensconced on the Old West Side with his wife, Janet, and their five young children.
Tang is an intuitive and imaginative cook, and even with the added responsibilities of ownership, he's still very much a hands-on chef: the cooking here is as good as ever. The menu seems less creative than it once did, leaning too heavily toward old favorites, but Tang says he's trying to add new twists by changing vegetable side dishes and adding seasonal specials. On our recent visits, there weren't many of the latter-just a couple of appetizers, including an avocado soup. As it turned out, this was one of the best dishes of the night-a silky, unexpectedly delicious puree of avocado combined with a little stock and a dash of cream, with texture supplied by a haystack of crabmeat and crisp wonton strips.
Alongside that soup, our table shared a plate
of fried calamari. I wouldn't have ordered it myself-I've hit my lifetime limit on this dish-but if you're still up for it, Pacific Rim's version is as expertly prepared as any, and the sweet-hot dipping sauce that comes with it is stellar. The monsoon platter is a crowd-pleaser, combining familiar items such as a standard spring roll with novel ones like a pot sticker stuffed with duck confit. Each of the four two-bite appetizers is paired with a flavor-boosting sauce, the best of which was the smashing cilantro-lime chutney for the wee crab cake. Arranged on a square of white porcelain, the appetizers reminded me that I have not found more beautifully plated food anywhere in town.
Among the dinner entrees, we tried two that were new to us. The fillet of hamachi (yellowtail) is barely seared, thinly sliced, and served with buckwheat soba noodles and a tidy mound of watercress. The overall effect is light but nourishing. The scallops with quinoa turned out to be the kind of unexpected and dramatic dish Pacific Rim can do so well: three fat scallops seared with a thin crust of the ground quinoa (the ancient Incas' "mother grain" and a nutrition powerhouse) and served alongside saffron rice and a mélange of cubed kohlrabi, crunchy edamame, and fennel.
The duck with Chinese five-spice remains an unqualified hit-pan seared to medium rare and swirling in a balanced reduction spiced with cinnamon, fennel, star anise, cloves, and Szechuan peppercorns. And much as I like the duck, I'd order it just for the accompanying risotto-buds of short-grain rice in a thick broth with almost over-the-top richness provided by duck confit. The only beef entree, a small strip steak from naturally raised cattle, was straightforward-expertly grilled and served with an unfussy wasabi-peppercorn sauce and potato puree. A more delicate old favorite is the sablefish, a small Pacific whitefish with a mild flavor. Here it is pan roasted and served with a tangy tamarind-soy sauce. The bottom line on the sablefish pretty much sums up the best aspects of all of Pacific Rim's food: it's interesting and filling but at the same time light and healthy. You don't feel the need to do penance after a meal.
You could tip the wholesomeness canoe with a warm chocolate cake, which, the waiters will remind you at the beginning of every meal, will take twenty minutes to prepare. It's worth the wait for warm dark chocolate, homemade coconut ice cream, and booze-soaked cherries. Yet the classic ginger tea, a recipe passed down from Kana's founders, is still my favorite way to end a meal here.
So many elements are firmly in place at Pacific Rim: the kitchen's visual artistry; the excellent pacing of meals; and the service, with longtime waiters who know the menu inside and out and help steer food and wine choices. If I were going to fault Tang on any single point, I'd wish he would mix it up a little on his menu-and I may get my wish. When I talked to him after I finished my meals here, I learned that big changes are in store.
In mid-September, Pacific Rim discontinued lunch service. Tang says that "at best we were breaking even" at lunch-and he and his staff needed the time to focus on an upcoming expansion of the restaurant. They're about to break through the west wall to add a bar, overflow seating, and a private dining room in the old Ehnis & Sons space. And they will finally have an ADA-compliant loo (currently the restrooms are downstairs). The restaurant will remain open during the renovations, which Tang hopes to complete by mid-December.
Pacific Rim is a sleek and stylish exemplar of restaurant design. With its understated lighting, deep warm colors on the walls, and beautifully crafted wooden accents, it's one of the most visually soothing eating places in Ann Arbor. Tang is very sensitive about maintaining that ambience. Though the expansion will add about forty seats to the current fifty-five, he promises to preserve Pacific Rim's look and feel.
Tang says closing at lunch and expanding the space will give him the creative freedom to bring in more seasonality and perhaps a bar menu of appetizers and small plates. He's got me looking forward to new favorites alongside the old ones.
Pacific Rim by Kana
114 West Liberty 662-9303
Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-9:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m.
Appetizers $3-$13, entrees $17-$29, desserts $3.50-$8
Plans for full disability friendliness; restrooms not currently accessible to the disabled (see review)
[Originally published in October, 2008.]