Q: According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5771. According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4707. What do Jews call the 1,064 years without Chinese food?
A: The Dark Ages
As that joke is an undeniable fact, it does beg the question: Do Chinese people love latkas??? While we all ponder who in this world does not love those little fried potato pancakes, I find myself riverside in Sandy Springs. Peter Chang, the mercurial wokman, is back with his crack. As a consequence, I’m eating my traditional Christmas Day meal of Chinese food while in the capable hands of Sir Chang.
But before we get to the end, let’s start at the beginning. Any commentary on Peter Chang MUST mention his time at Tasty China and a few other places. Now that that’s out of the way … let’s get to the good stuff!
Right off the bat, the eponymously named restaurant seems to fit Chang’s “never stay in one place too long” personality. Housed just down the street from Ray’s on The River, PC’s river view, especially on a snowy Christmas Day, reminds me of something you’d find in an upscale New England seafood house. Ultimately, the fleeting dust of snow helps add to an already ethereal and soothing environment. The serenity will probably go by the wayside when the droves of Chinese craving ATLiens show up en masse, but you get the idea.
With some less than common architectural angles, a staircase and bar that dominates the initial impression (as well as mask the size of the restaurant), it’s a little odd inside. Far from jaunting, Chang’s building is ultimately a space that makes me relax. For those concerned that the lack of polish means Chang won’t be there long … that’s apparently not the case!
CP4 and I are deep in conversation by the time we arrive. Having braved the weather, I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine even if this hostess ignores me. She doesn’t, and we’re promptly seated in the midst of various Asian doilies and not far from the wall of fame (ya know … that seemingly obligatory area of a restaurant designated “We’re going to put up every freaking award we’ve ever won even if it was for another restaurant 20 years ago”).
The conversation begins to turn itself over, and while we deliberately avoid the menu to prolong the hangout time, our server brings us a hot pot of tea (upon request). Arggggg … I had a great bottle of 2006 Marcel Diess Pinot Gris (courtesy of Perrine’s), but alas, I left it home. At least we’re going to save the reasonable $10 corkage fee.
The staff here seems a mix and match of personalities, some of whom are still learning their way around a Chinese restaurant. In fact, our server just returned with a pretty thick “guide” in hand. I immediately understand the need for the book. As I glance in wonderment at the plethora of choices, I can’t help but find the menu a little overwhelming. Many a restaurant will inundate me with near identical choices out the Yin-Yang; that’s not the problem here. Instead, the way the items are listed, the font selection, and the spatial layout of the the items lead to the confusion. Still, CP4 and I begin a cap & trade to narrow down the choices. Obviously oblivious to the fact that foodistas like Spark Plug, The Ambiguously Foodie Duo, and B-Smooth are nowhere to be found, we end up ordering about 5x too much food. We assure the server we’re not crazy, she chuckles, and jets to the back.
I think it’s safe to assume that CP4 is most familiar with the Chinese food of the General, and for that reason, we try to balance the ordering with ingredients and flavor profiles that won’t jaunt his sensibilities.
Sitting in front of me is, as CP4 said, a seemingly Chinese sample of Sheppard’s Pie sits. Pan Fried Three Flavors consists of an egg and coconut milk shell wrapped around a layer of rice and another layer of diced mushroom and pork. It was nothing short of sublime. Texturally similar to an order of fried rice, the sweetness of the coconut milk against the sautéed mushrooms made this killer.
We’re both several fistfuls in when a gigantic bubble shows up. This scallion pancake meets blow fish (aka a scallion bubble) comes with a side of curry sauce. I barely touch the provided yellow curry, instead opting to consume my share of the crisped dough as fast as possible. Though scallion pancakes are not Sichuan (Chang’s area of expertise), the bites of dough were light (yet crunchy) with a subtle stamp of scallions. Spot on!
The remaining appetizers are the tofu skin in chili sauce and the crispy pork belly. I am intrigued yet reserved when these arrive on the table. Regarding the tofu, my sense is that chef Chang relied heavily on oil to crisp the tofu curd. Instead, the paste used really comes through. Ultimately, I enjoy working through the tofu skin along with the other, shaved vegetables.
The crispy pork belly will remind you of some of the hot and numbing dishes Chang prepares. Absent of the chilies on top, the deep fried pork belly is just awash with a greasiness you kind of expect. When accompanied by the peppers, the fattiness shrivels at the insistence of the heat. I’ve had this many a time at Tasty China, I suspect this was just an off night.
As more and more dishes flooded our small table, I remind myself that stomach space is at a premium. Consequently, I begin to flail like Peter Griffin without an inner tube. The faster I get food in … the more I can stomach (that’s how it works … right?).
The crystal shrimp is a solid order. The base of the sauce appears to be oil and Chinese rice wine, however, the dish is far from oily. The snow peas and asparagus really snap with freshness, and though I think the dish could be hotter (temp not spice – a problem throughout most of the meal), the ginger gives this dish a hint of delicacy.
I stab at a pile of leeks, smoked tofu, and bamboo shoots. Slivered into a sort of vegetable pasta, it’s another refreshing dish. Consider this another soft crunch. Well executed and happily consumed.
The chicken with three peppers in [sic] hot iron plate and the deep fried Sichuan salty duck get the most attention, and as staples of Chang’s Sichuan arsenal. The chicken arrives like a plate of sizzling fajitas. The sautéed vegetables add a touch of natural sweetness; however, the undisputed champion of this dish is the kick. It’s not an overwhelming heat, rather, more like a nagging scab. You just realize it’s always there. Excellent!
The deep fried duck is full on intensity of juicy duck, crispy skin, and heavy heavy spice. Having requested it hot, the Sichuan peppercorns and the sherry hit my tongue, give me the heat and announce their presence with authority! It’s a dish that takes hours to prepare, and the care is demonstrated in the juiciness of the fried bird.
By now, you’re probably wondering how much food is left over. The answer: A LOT. As we roundly wobble out to the car, it’s apparent I’m not going to make it home with this food. Chang is in such high demand that even my father had to have some. How’s that for making a mark?
Just cuz it’s the end of the year doesn’t make me any more likely to name a best of; however, this meal is right up there with my expectations. With a few improvements to the supporting act (aka – things other than the food), I think this will be a mainstay for many years … whether it remains in the current location is a question I can’t answer.
Smile Atlanta, Chang is back!
Oh, and while you may not need to bring your chopsticks, you have to ask for them at this time.
Peter Chang’s Restaurant Address & Information
6450 Powers Ferry Rd, Atlanta, GA 30339 // 770.419.9849