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Pacific Ring Pan Asian Cuisine

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Location: 1900 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-421-3338
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. noon-10 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers $1.50-10; entrées $6-24
Fare: Chinese, Japanese and a sampling of other Asian cuisines
Atmosphere: Casual Chinese dining plus sushi bar
Liquor: None

A friend of Angelique's was once on the phone to a colleague in Philadelphia. Confirming a meeting, the Philadelphian said, "Ten o'clock -- that's 9, your time." The Pittsburgher's amusement turned to consternation when the Citizen of Brotherly Love refused to believe that Pittsburgh, too, was on Eastern Time; how could it be, he protested, when it was a Midwestern city?

This anecdote highlights a peculiar aspect of Pittsburgh's regional identity crisis. True, we're closer to the shores of Lake Erie than to the Atlantic, and we call fizzy, sweetened soft drinks "pop"; to some, that's evidence enough that Pittsburgh is in the Midwest. But our rugged, wooded topography -- the opposite of mid-America's famous fruited plain -- and location in Pennsylvania, one of the original coastal colonies, seem to place us firmly in the East.

One thing we know for sure: Pittsburgh could hardly be farther, physically or culturally, from the West Coast. But one of the delights of dining is that food can transcend geography, and our Pittsburgh palates have made themselves quite at home amid the varied and often commingled cuisines of the Pacific.

So we were looking forward to visiting Pacific Ring, a new, self-described pan-Asian eatery that opened recently in the former location of one of Squirrel Hill's most venerable Chinese restaurants. The spacious interior retains many of the Chinese flourishes of its former occupant, but adds a sushi bar amid the white tablecloths, silk flowers and a softly splashing water fixture. The menu forgoes a fusion approach for separate selections of Chinese and Japanese favorites, augmented by chef's specialties from other Pacific Ring locales such as Australia, Hawaii and Thailand.

We began with a bowl of Chinese hot-and-sour soup. Pacific Ring's was a dark broth full of egg, bamboo shoots and mushrooms; all that was missing was the clean zing of black vinegar that defines the best versions of this dish. Angelique savored a Japanese tako (octopus) salad, comprised of sweet, rosy slices of tentacle in a refreshing citrusy dressing. Sesame seeds provided crunchy contrast to the octopus' tender texture.

We had differing reactions to beef negimaki, grilled steak sliced thin and wrapped around asparagus and pickled vegetables. Angelique found the beef bland and the teriyaki sauce that covered the whole dish unctuous, but Jason appreciated the contrasting texture of the vegetables, their flavor -- more sweet-tart than sour -- and the complementary sweetness of the sauce.

Between appetizers and hot entrées came sushi. A pair of salmon nigiri featured buttery-soft fish draped over rice balls which were neither gummy nor tough, but perfectly moistened and flavored with rice vinegar, sugar and mirin. The Osaka roll, with spicy tuna and cucumber as one of the less, shall we say, outlandish of Pacific Ring's many specialty rolls, struck a good balance among strong flavors and had a pleasingly crisp wrapper.

Jason tucked into an entrée of Pacific signature steak, a generous cut of lightly crusted filet mignon with a large sea scallop nestled inside. The beefy filet and sweet scallop formed a triangle of contrast with the spicy black pepper sauce, the silky texture of which recalled a French demiglace. If only the side dishes had lived up to the centerpiece: The woody bases of the asparagus spears were unappetizing, the Portobello mushrooms were mushy, and Jason found the potato croquette an oddity (though Angelique reports that croquettes were popular in Japan when she lived there, 15 years ago).

Strangely enough, it was also in Japan that Angelique developed a taste for ma po tofu, a spicy Chinese tofu stew. Pacific Ring's was nostalgically good, full of silken tofu that literally melted in her mouth, and was gently spiced with hot red peppers.

We tend to think of flavor as the defining characteristic of food, but Pacific Ring demonstrates the power of texture to transport a dish from merely good to thoroughly delicious. With a few minor exceptions, it was this attention to texture -- both as a single component of a dish and in play with others -- that made Pacific Ring's Chinese and Japanese fare stand out.

Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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