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All We Can Eat
Posted at 05:00 PM ET, 02/13/2012

First look at Peter Chang Cafe in Glen Allen, Va.

Chang's latest restaurant is located in a sprawling strip mall heavy on big American chains. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Cult figures aren’t supposed to send invitations. They’re supposed to hole up in ratty motels, reading their esoteric tracts on the full symbiosis of being and knowing while disdaining the the very pigeons who dare to hover in their smoke-filled airspace. Cult figures don’t use Evite.

But after years of reading about, and salivating over, the cooking of Peter Chang, never once finding my palate and his plates in the same space, I found an unlikely note in my inbox: an invitation to the grand opening party of Peter Chang Cafe, his second restaurant in central Virginia and possibly the prototype of things to come from the chef.

It was not supposed to be like this. My first experience with the Great Chang should have required more suffering on my part. It should have required phone calls, voyeuristic pawing through other people’s posts on food blogs, maybe even FBI triangulation. It should have been more like John Binkley’s experience. It should not, under any circumstances, have come via electronic invitation.

The menu for last Wednesday's opening dinner tried to balance heat levels, offering diners mild, medium and fiery dishes to give their tongues time to recover. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
But it did, and because it did, I enjoyed the most leisurely drive down to the Richmond area with former Post food critic and Food editor Phyllis Richman, who supplied me with all manner of information on Washington’s early dining scene in return for the ride. Even better, I learned she lives three blocks away. I’ll be able to bug her on a regular basis.

We didn’t drive immediately to the Richmond ’burbs, where Chang’s new restaurant is located. Instead, we made a stop at Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville, where I attempted to acquaint myself with Chang’s Sichuan cooking with a preliminary gorging in advance of an even larger face-stuffing that evening. While there, we had the good fortune of meeting China Grill co-owner James Lee, a chatty character in a sweater vest who could talk for hours about Sichuan cooking and the cultural revolution.

Former Post food critic Phyllis Richman found the dishes at Chang's opening party good, but not as transcendent as her previous experiences. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The lunch provided some minor insights on how well Chang and his team will remain consistent across locations, should they decide to franchise the chef’s Sichuan dishes as they indicated last week. Truth be told, both Phyllis and I preferred the pork soup buns in Charlottesville, with their loose meat and liquidy interior, which (I later found out) is the more traditional approach; the meatball inside your dumpling, in other words, should never be as firm as a doggy chew toy.

Once we reached the opening party at Peter Chang Cafe, I think it’s safe to say we also preferred the Charlottesville strip mall over the one in Glen Allen; the latter is a monstrosity of American chains: GNC, Domino’s Pizza. Radio Shack. H&R Block. Wal-Mart. GameStop. Wendy’s. Chang’s 115-seat restaurant feels like a newborn lamb among hungry lions.

The Sichuan lamb chops, marinated in orange and pear juices, were rosy and tender on first bite — before the incendiary heat of the peppers kicked in. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
We were two of 80-some people invited to the opening-night dinner, the results of which we mixed. Even longtime Changians found themselves disappointed with the meal, though I do sense some of their disappointment might be rooted in Chang’s ever-growing accessibility. (Personally, despite my inexperience in Chang’s cooking, I found most of the meal, with a few exceptions, hit the right notes.) Changians could be like those early punks who never wanted to see the Sex Pistols become just another symbol of some suburban kid’s middle-class angst.

Below are some photos and commentary from last week’s opening-night party.

The pork soup buns, while not as delicate and juicy as those we sampled at Peter Chang's China Grill in Charlottesville, were nonetheless a forceful reminder that there are two Changs in the house. Lisa Chang, the chef’s wife, handles the appetizers, desserts (what there are) and all the doughs. She is clearly the unsung hero in the Chang kitchen. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

This unassuming bite, a soybean-based fried dough studded with grains of sticky rice for texture, was a reminder that big flavors can come in small packages. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The hanging butterflies at Peter Chang Cafe echo a similar decorative device at Peter Chang's China Grill in Charlottesville. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Chang and his wife, Lisa, a certified master chef as well, made the rounds following the dinner. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

By  |  05:00 PM ET, 02/13/2012

Categories:  Chefs | Tags:  Tim Carman

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