Disclaimer: Pacific Rim is Ann Arbor’s crème de la crème, plating food that rivals (and, blessedly, in some cases, knocks out) the swank, smart and haute brasseries belonging to New York’s epicurean glitterati. As with my other local favorites—Metzger’s German Restaurant and Karl’s Cabin among them—Pacific Rim’s menu isn’t solely a reflection of the ingredients; instead, it speaks to where American and, more specifically, where local cuisine stands in contemporary culture and gastronomy. Here is fusion, blends of old time flavors with innovative tastes and twists, led by a chef who’s bold enough to create dishes as unique as shitake pierogies and Thai-style fettuccine.
Welcome to Pacific Rim, owned by Chef Duc Tang. The following describes one of the best restaurant meals I’ve ever had.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, a place where the past hangs in the air like mist, a crossroads in every aspect of its culture, Duc (pronounced “Duke”) attributes his culinary choices to the flavors that distinguish his childhood home: lemongrass, curry, lime and cilantro. He has also lived in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Vancouver and New York, places all known for their own signature food stuffs (Kowloon braised short-ribs and L.A.’s Korean barbeque tacos, say). Celebrating America’s melting pot of cultures and cuisines, Duc has combined those flavors while honoring their original integrity.
“The important thing for me is that my menu has precedence, that it is based on something original or authentic,” he said. “Then it becomes my interpretation of that dish, or my way of making that dish more accessible, more palatable and more elegant.”
Elegant, indeed. First up for dinner was a house salad of fennel, pine nuts, onion and a light curry dressing (I stuffed this baby down with my slick, silver chopsticks). Next, much in the style of Asian fruit purees, a sampling of butternut squash puree—cinnamon, nutmeg, white wine and cream blended with the squash and served in a bowl shaped like a conch shell.
Exquisite, to say the least.
Duc describes Pacific Rim’s menu as contemporary Pan Asian in the way he interprets traditional Asian dishes. He insists, however, that he never mixes flavors distinct to certain regions. He explains that those mixes have historically gone awry.
“Over the years, the term ‘fusion’ has developed a negative connotation. [Asian fusion] has a connotation of forcing elements or flavors together that don’t belong together,” said Duc. “For me, I don’t like to go too far off the well-trodden path; using Asian flavors and flavor combinations with respect to their heritage are what keep them intact.”
What it comes down to is that food is a science. It is a thoughtful process led by minds who understand the Everyman’s base craving for the good stuff, the meals that have us literally licking our plates clean of all sauce squiggles and trimmings. Interestingly enough, Duc initially studied to become a physician (he graduated with a biochemistry degree from Yale) before he hit the restaurant biz running. This chef was trained to know the sum of parts, the mix and balance of the best ingredients to make any concoction whole.
I tasted this practiced chemistry in his wasabi-peppercorn tenderloin, paired with mashed Yukon Golds and garnished with bok choy—these were surely ingredients that belonged together.
Unafraid of the untasted, Duc realizes his role as a true fusion chef. “By having Asian roots but growing up in America, I can bridge the gap,” he said.
I am no chef. Julia Child was a complete mystery to me before Meryl’s rendition on the big screen. But, I know food. I like food. The places I enjoy most really focus on the product they serve, more than the fabricated cache and ritzy trappings. And, though Pacific Rim’s ambience is elegant—the whole place is framed in soft orange and teak wood—it is also accessible. Welcoming and hospitable. Wholeheartedly defying expectations.
“For us, it isn’t about protocol or etiquette, but about the dining experience. It’s about building relationships and friendships. Eating food is just the vehicle for the interpersonal aspect of that dining experience,” said Duc. “Not adding tablecloths, for example, was a decision to make Pacific Rim less formal, to make it elegant but casual. People love the ambience and core.”
Poking at the center of my warm chocolate cake—which sent a delicious magma of chocolate fudge and sake-macerated cherries into the coconut Kahlua ice cream—it felt comfortable. Homey, though at a candlelit table, though served by a fella in a jacket. My second dessert, a tasting of green tea, cinnamon and pumpkin-flavored crèmes brûlées, had an equal effect—Julia I am not, but boy did I enjoy my entire dining experience.
Pacific Rim and its head chef are impressively bold, daily preparing amalgams of the old and new. It is truly fusion at its best.