Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Elusive chef Peter Chang returns to Charlottesville for a feast of epic proportions.

Posted on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM

by Robey Martin

Lately it seems that when anyone mentions Peter Chang, everyone's ears perk up. Where is he? What is next for him? Rumors flew a few months ago about a restaurant opening in Short Pump or perhaps another location in Georgia. The highly coveted chef has been “sighted” at strip malls in Fairfax and Charlottesville. Inspiring hound dog- like tracking, his movements are chronicled in the New Yorker and on Twitter, everyone collectively breath-holding for his next landing pad. He even has his own fan club, the Changians.

Well, just as abruptly as his disappearance from Taste of China in Charlottesville last year, he re-emerges in Charlottesville at Peter Chang's China Grill in the old Wild Greens spot at Barracks Road, opening today and taking reservations only. If the preview I was privy to last night is any indication of the future: Welcome back, Peter. 

For two-plus hours, I was ushered through 12 courses of spicy cuisine. Tightly packed to round tables, servers delivered round after round of delicate food, showcasing exactly the spectacle that has given Chang his fans.
“Numbing” spices, predominately the peppercorn, are a base in Sichuan cuisine. The Sichuan peppercorn is actually the berry of a tree related to the prickly ash tree. These “seeds” from this berry are not hot, per se, but create a tingling back throat and tongue tickle that enriches hot tastes. Chang utilizes the Sichuan peppercorn and red pepper in tandem, coaxing cooperation between the two spices.

Starting with Szechuan Bang Bang Shrimp, Hot and Numbing Dry Beef, and Broiled Chicken with a spicy red sauce, a balanced heat was prevalent through the entirety of the meal. Easily explained as Asian beef jerky, the marinated and dried beef flecked with sesame seeds was overtly but somehow pleasantly tough. The shrimp, fried lightly, and the sliced chicken, adroitly prepared, seemed like an afterthought to the dense beef with its in-your-face crunch.

Phyllo flake-like tofu skin (Shanghai tofu skin rolls) wrapped tightly and sliced, was drenched in a cooling sweet red sauce that broke the hot overtone. Fresh and crisp cilantro-laced fish rolls acted as a sneaky palate cleanser followed by a deceptively light (also cilantro-packed) fish and sour cabbage soup, broth-y and translucent. Transitioning into more meal-like dishes at what seemed like breakneck speed, we were brought clean plates and served Chang's rendition of Dan Dan noodles. Expecting spicy yet again, I was mildly taken aback by the vinegary taste and spagetti-like texture.

Next came a dry-fried eggplant and spicy fragrant duck -- easily my two favorite courses of the evening. Dry-frying is uniquely Sichuan. The technique is supremely difficult using medium heat and actually drying out the ingredient before adding spices. The method produces heavenly odors and a product that is devoid of any greasy feel. Eggplant, known to be wealthy in moisture, shines in this preparation. Duck, again notably fatty, gains heartiness prompting the question from a patron at our table to inquire if the meat was in fact, duck. 

Another stellar example of Chang's cooking prowess is the Pearl Ball. Picture the child-favorite sweet snowballs, replace the coconut with rice and the marshmallow with a whitefish and shrimp “meringue.” While the description sounds less than appetizing, the finished product virtually melts when eaten, a combination of sweet rice and salty, airy fish. Other samplings included a gorgeously presented whole fish, velvet shrimp and mushrooms and a tender baked lamb chop rounding out the savory portion of our meal.

Dessert consisted of red bean rice balls. Fluffy and so uniformly round it was almost comical, the sweet, barely present red bean paste was enough sugar to pop with the popcorn-like taste of the outer core.

Now, before your excitement grows to epic proportions, it is being said that Chang is only at this restaurant to consult briefly and will be moving on to other things in the near future. So if your goal is to eat cuisine prepared by Chang himself, I might head west with little haste.

A old Chinese saying claims: “China is the place for food, Sichuan is the place for flavor.” With last night in mind, I would be inclined to agree.

Peter Chang's China Grill, 434-244-9818, 2162 Barracks Road, Charlottesville

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