At first I can’t remember exactly where I heard about Peter Chang China Grill. I discover the name on my own restaurant to do list and the word “Charlottesville” appears next to it. Since we drive through
Charlottesville periodically on our way to and from from my husband’s hometown of Lynchburg, Va, I must have jotted it down when it came up in some forum or food chat. (Upon returning home I find it described beautifully in Todd Kliman’s March 29, 2011 online chat.)
I happen to peruse my to do list shortly before a trip to Lynchburg, and the Charlottesville restaurant catches my eye. I conduct some online research to jog my memory. What I find is fascinating. Chef Peter Chang has been written about quite a bit. He is a highly-regarded and sought-after chef (which is actually an understatement) who moves around frequently and often without much notice. He is described as “elusive” and “enigmatic.” In an article from the Oxford American, entitled “Todd Kliman Chases the Perfect Chef” the Washingtonian critic makes my pursuit of Top Cheftestants seem like child’s play.
My online research is a bit confusing. I can’t really tell how connected the chef is to the restaurant that bears his name. I finally decide it’s not worth puzzling over. But then as we are nearing Charlottesville, something is nagging at me. I pick up my Droid and frantically begin to search Google for Peter Chang China Grill. I find this from www.NBC29.com dated May 24, 2011:
“World-renowned Chef Peter Chang’s new Charlottesville restaurant is gaining recognition in the Big Apple.New York Magazine lists the Barracks Road eatery as the restaurant in Virginia worth trekking to to taste this summer. The editors of Grub Street picked one spot per state. The magazine says Peter Chang’s China Grill will give you “deep foodie bragging rights”, especially if the elusive chef picks up and moves on quickly.
Say no more. We are so going to this restaurant.
We arrive early afternoon on a Sunday and the place is fairly empty, which I find surprising given all that I’ve seen online. Perhaps it is just Charlottesville in the summer. I ask our server for an update on Chef Chang, his involvement in the restaurant, and for some recommendations on what to order. He is eager to share his knowledge.
He tells us that Chef Chang comes and goes between this Charlottesville restaurant and another in Atlanta, traveling back and forth by bus. Chang is devoted to training his chefs to execute his dishes. The server assures us we are going to have a fantastic meal, although admits that the food definitely “takes a step up when Peter Chang is here.” He tells us that Chang was last in the house two weeks ago when he came back to cook for actor Robert Duvall. I’m sorry we missed that! We go with our server’s recommendations and sit back ready to enjoy the ride.
We begin with dry-fried eggplant and crispy cucumber- which we are told is not on the menu – but will go well with the spice of the eggplant. The eggplant is lightly fried and covered with szechuan peppercorns. The server says the spice is called hua chow or otherwise referred to as “watch out”. The dish has a slow burn. A bite taken with a piece of fresh cilantro is a perfect bite. Next a bite of crisp, salty, cold cucumber which nicely balances the heat. The flavor of the eggplant is so unique and the texture so exquisite that my husband and I have to work hard to stop ourselves from eating more. It is a struggle. But we have two more dishes to go.
Next we have Ma Po Tofu. I have decided in deference to my husband’s kosher observance that I am going to stick with vegetables and fish for this meal. There are certainly enough appealing choices that I don’t feel like it is at all a sacrifice.
The Ma Po Tofu is asoupy dish with an abundance of smooth and silky tofu and chili paste. The sauce is pungent and searingly hot. Rice is a necessity to sop up the sauce. This must be consumed with water and lots of it. We smile through our sweat and tears.
|Ma Po tofu|
Our final dish is a house special fish. It is stir fry flounder with vegetables and cilantro. The flavors are more complex than the tofu dish, but it is a little difficult to taste them after the spice of the tofu. This dish has some heat as well, but in comparison it is more subtle. We have plenty to take home and I look forward to tasting it again with a fresh palate.
|house special fish|
We have way too much food, particularly for lunch, but we’re here and there is no harm in leftovers. I would have ordered more – and probably should have! I know that there is so much more to be discovered.
I am so glad that I persisted in finding Peter Chang China Grill. This is Chinese food that is something special, and I venture to say cannot be found in the DC area. I would have preferred to find Peter Chang himself, but clearly I am not the only one who finds this is a difficult pursuit.
Peter Chang China Grill, 2162 Barracks Rd, Charlottesville, VA
My rating (on a 1-5 scale): 4.5