I am an admirer of Chef Peter Chang’s food. I first wrote about him in July 2011, after visiting his Charlottesville restaurant, where I’ve now dined on a number of occasions. Much has been written about the Chinese chef, including an article in The New York Times by food critic Pete Wells: “Where Peter Chang Cooks, They will Follow.” Chef Chang’s notoriety is partly due to his elusive nature. He is known to open restaurants and then disappear. While it’s a fact that the food is best when he’s cooking it, Chang has created a stellar cadre of dishes that have gained their own notoriety, no matter who is preparing them.
Peter Chang’s bubble scallion pancake is one of his legendary dishes. The fluffy balloons of dough come to the table two on a plate, accompanied by a flavorful warm curry sauce. The delivery is guaranteed to elicit oohs and ahs, particularly among first-timers to the restaurant. It’s a quintessential beginning to a Peter Chang experience. On a recent visit my dining companions aren’t enticed, and since I’ve been here, eaten that, I don’t protest. The dish deserves the respect its earned, however, and I miss it.
Cilantro flounder fish rolls have become a standard on my Peter Chang repertoire. The audible crunch is music to my ears, and the luscious combination of fish and chopped cilantro is particularly pleasing.
While I am willing to forgo bubble scallion pancakes, I will not abandon Grandma’s Noodles. Grandma likes it spicy. The thick noodles are topped with the standard hot and numbing Sichuan ingredients including chili pepper, scallions, peppercorns, and chopped cilantro. The noodles are coated in hot oil, best when applied sparingly. The spice-adverse may request the heat to be toned down, but there’s no getting around the bite of the dish. I prefer it without editing, and some extra water.
A visit here should also include dry fried eggplant, another dish for which Peter Chang is well known. The deep fried slices of eggplant are crispy on the outside, giving way to a gush of juicy vegetable on the inside. On one visit the dish lacks the usual crunch, but my unsuspecting dining companions have no basis for comparison and are impressed. Another time, we request a toning down of the spice. The eggplant is at its best when the spices aren’t adjusted for a milder palate, but its a knockout dish regardless.
The Washington Post recently published the recipe for Peter Chang’s coveted cumin lamb, another of his most acclaimed dishes. Sichuan peppercorns, cilantro, scallions, and red chili peppers are once again key ingredients, but cumin adds a distinctive flavor. The tender lamb chops are flawless, and the dish is one of the most memorable I’ve had here.
Crystal shrimp with snow peas provides a welcome relief from the burn, which is a necessity no matter how much spice you can tolerate.
Tea smoked duck is fantastic on one visit, but the second time not so much. There are more bones, and fattier pieces of meat. Still, the smoky flavor is intoxicating, and the accompanying fried onions are absolutely addictive.
We are encouraged to try a new fried ice cream for dessert and provide an opinion. Our verdict: needs more ice cream. It’s probably better to spend calories elsewhere.
My first visit to the Rockville location is during opening week, and Chef Chang is in the kitchen which fuels the excitement. I don’t see him on subsequent visits, and dishes vary in consistency each time. With a growing empire, it will be rare to have the famed chef in the kitchen. Can Peter Chang the restaurant deliver the same level of excellence as Peter Chang the chef? The answer is probably not quite, but with so many inspired dishes on the menu, it’s still worthy of a happy dance.
Peter Chang, 20A Maryland Avenue, Rockville, Maryland (locations also in Arlington, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, and more. (see the website for details.