by Elissa Karg
P.F. Changs China Bistro incorporates many elements I dont like in a restaurant: It is part of chain, number 21 out of 24 and counting. It is located in a posh mall. (Dont say mall, its a collection.) The menu strays from authentic. Theres always a wait.
But it is a very good restaurant.
The concept is a cooperative effort between owner Paul Flemming and Phillip Chang, a California restaurateur, which explains the name.
Inside, you are surrounded by art. A 12th century Chinese screen painting depicting daily life (including a picnic) has been re-created as a mural that stretches around the dining room. One wall is studded with reproductions of sculpture unearthed in the city of Xian, dating to the 11th century B.C. At the back entrance there is a museumlike display of ceramic pottery and figures.
The booths are upholstered in dark red and are woven with black Chinese characters and brush strokes. This is combined with Frank Sinatra on the sound system and desserts that cater to the American appetite for rich and sweet, and rich.
The noise level in this 220-seat eatery is high.
"Loud and fun, thats the concept," says manager Pete Trupiano. The kitchen is open, and a row of line chefs stir-fries furiously under gleaming stainless steel vents. Each dish is cooked to order.
The menu is at once sophisticated and dumbed down.
"Its geared towards American sensibilities," says Trupiano.
Just about everyone likes pot stickers, but at P.F. Changs they are titled "Peking Ravioli." Actually, they dont much resemble ravioli; the noodle is much thinner, there is no tomato sauce, and there is more filling than noodle. Theyre better than ravioli. (I could understand using "Peking" to describe a certain duck dish, but why not get with the times and call it "Beijing Ravioli"?)
Our server talked us into the calamari appetizer. She said she didnt know that she liked calamari until she tried Changs. Me too. It is deep-fried with a light batter; at the table, you dip first in a saucer of salt and pepper, then a spicy hot soy sauce.
All of the entrées we tried Cantonese duck, Malaysian chicken, double pan-fried noodles were excellent, but my favorite was spicy ground chicken and eggplant ($9). I liked it so much I used my (enormous) clout as a critic to get some hints about the cooking method. Long, thin Japanese eggplants are used (they tend to be less acrid), peeled, cut into 2-inch lengths and stir-fried. Then a spicy-sweet sauce is added to the wok, and combined on the plate with minced chicken. (The chicken doesnt add much.)
Changs serves a variety of wine, beer and specialty drinks that traverse many cultures. We tried a good sake and dry Chinese Tsingtao beer.
Changs desserts are outside the genre. Three tarts/tortes are made elsewhere for the chain. We sampled two, both very rich, which led me to mango sorbet at a subsequent visit. That was a treat. Mangoes are eaten in China, which fits my sensibilities.