Charlottesville: Found- Peter Chang’s China Grill

I can’t remember exactly where I heard about Peter Chang’s China Grill.  The restaurant name appears on my to do list, alongside the word “Charlottesville. ”   I peruse my list shortly before a trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, 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, who moves around frequently, 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.

I can’t really tell how connected the chef is to the restaurant that bears his name.  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 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.
Chang has disappeared and left restaurants, inspiring a group of fans to follow his movement in Internet discussion boards, such as and Chowhound.”

I don’t need to read anything else. We are going to this restaurant.

We arrive early afternoon on a Sunday and the place is fairly empty, which I find surprising.  I ask our server for an update on Chef Chang, his involvement in the restaurant, and 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 along with all his recommendations, beginning with dry-fried eggplant and crispy cucumber. This is not on the menu, but is recommended to accompany 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.

dry-fried eggplant
crispy cucumber

Next is 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 a soupy 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

House special fish 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 intense spice of the tofu.  This dish has some heat as well, but in comparison 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, but there is no harm in leftovers. I would have ordered more – and probably should have!  There is so much more to be discovered on this extensive menu.

I am glad that I persisted in finding Peter Chang’s 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’s China Grill, 2162 Barracks Rd, Charlottesville, VA

Todd Kliman’s March 29, 2011 online chat.)
My rating (on a 1-5 scale): 4.5

Peter Chang's China Grill on Urbanspoon

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