Before it opened, NiHao was one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in Baltimore. Its owner and executive chef, Peter Chang, is credited with elevating Sichuan offerings in the Mid-Atlantic region with D.C.-area restaurants like “Q” and “Mama Chang.” His foodie followers have tracked his whereabouts obsessively, even warranting a write-up in The New Yorker. So news that he was building an outpost in Canton — Baltimore’s Canton, not the eponymous city in China — seemed almost too good to be true.
Then, just before the restaurant was set to open, the world came to an end.
Chef Pichet Ong, a friend of Chang’s and collaborator, got quickly to work, re-imagining his menu for the COVID carryout diner. It helped that Ong, a pastry chef nominated three times for the James Beard Awards, suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. His restaurants in New York and bakery in D.C. shut down. He recruited new talent for the Baltimore kitchen. He thought about comfort food, the kinds of dishes his own mother cooked. He snagged a spaceship-like smoker from Walmart.
And he opened a restaurant that’s like no place else in Baltimore.
Since it opened this summer, NiHao, Mandarin for “Hello,” has stuck to a carryout-only model, which Ong says is partly because of safety concerns and also the challenge of finding staff. Customers are advised to order online and pick up. Dishes are also available through Uber Eats.
The Peking duck could give some Baltimoreans sticker shock. It’s $68. But, like a Costco membership, it’s a great value when you think about it. A platter of food with fluffy bao and veggies included, it’s enough to feed four people for dinner. Even more exciting are the leftovers. The dish is accompanied by a container of bone broth with noodles and vegetables so you can make your own decadent soup the next day. Directions are included, making for some truly idiot-proof cooking. It’s just the kind of hearty meal you want on a chilly fall weeknight.
Fusion gets a bad rap in the food world. But Ong points out that many natural combinations of cuisines have happened throughout history as humans move around from place to place. He embraces such mix-ups, with sauces, desserts and dishes that reflect a global palate. It’s part of who he is: Ong was born in Thailand and grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. Today, he splits his time between the Washington area and New York, where his mother lives.
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The flavor combinations shine in the sauces. With the duck, there’s a savory hoisin and ginger sauce as well as a memorable beet rose sauce inspired by Mediterranean flavors, a region for centuries connected to China by the Silk Road. And lordy, don’t get me started on the savory reduction that tops black pepper beef onglet, Ong’s exquisite take on steak au poivre.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that some dishes work better for carryout, while others lose their desirable texture after an hour’s car ride. The steamed fish filet with vermicelli remained remarkably perfect by the time I removed it from its eco-friendly brown box and put it on my plate. Had I closed my eyes I might have thought I was at a five-star restaurant, not my own kitchen table. On the other hand, the battered and fried cauliflower and broccoli tasted mushy after an hour. You’re better off grabbing some chopsticks and eating it in your car, as I did on my first visit. It’s not dignified, but who cares?
You may notice your entree doesn’t automatically come with rice. Ong says Chinese cooking is taking a step away from rice altogether, hence his use of vermicelli noodles to soak up the fish instead.
You’ve got to get dessert. Ong is a pastry chef and sweet tooth; I’ve enjoyed following his Instagram posts as he eats his way through Baltimore, making regular visits to the wonderful Sacre Sucre patisserie nearby. When it comes to his own cooking, NiHao’s matcha strawberry cake for two is a heavenly trifle, with layers of cream and fruit and cake worthy of Marie Antoinette. Charmingly, it comes perfectly made in a little brown box like a pint of ice cream. Another popular choice is cookie dough, which allows you to make your own Ovaltine snickerdoodles at home.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about value. Is a five-star meal, stripped of nice plates, presentation and atmosphere, still great? Is it possible to eat a meal out of a box that justifies spending $100? At NiHao, the answer is a resounding yes. Were The Baltimore Sun’s budget to allow it, I’d gladly come back once a week to see what’s cooking. After all, I still have yet to try the mushroom charred rice cakes, which Ong tells me are his favorite dish on the menu. And the fried rice overloaded with pork, shrimp and egg. Or the lunch special. Now that I think about it, I may need to go back one more time ...