Pichet Ong is a human ping-pong ball, bouncing from one table to another at the new Chang Chang in Dupont Circle. One moment, he’s telling a group of diners that the ribs they’re eating are popular in Shanghai. Another, he’s at my table, introducing friends and me to one of the most extravagant duck preparations anywhere. Best known locally as a pastry chef but a veteran of kitchens around the country, Ong may be the most overqualified server in Washington.
If you have to ask about the restaurant’s name, you’re probably new to the food scene. Chang Chang references the esteemed chef Peter Chang, 59, and looks to the future by acknowledging the input of his daughter, co-owner Lydia Chang. Chang Chang follows standard bearers Mama Chang in Fairfax, named in part for family matriarch Lisa, also a chef, and Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda in an empire that has grown to 12 dining rooms in the Mid-Atlantic and one in Stamford, Conn.
The family’s latest restaurant opened in October, initially offering just takeout — and from that moment, the city’s best to-go Chinese, an admittedly low bar but a joyous occurrence. The chicken in an order of roaring kung pao is not only abundant, it tastes clearly of itself; buying free-range Green Circle chicken from D’Artagnan helps. Pearly jumbo shrimp topped with glistening snow peas and asparagus — briefly blanched, then finished in a wok — balance pink with green, soft with crisp, sweet surf with a light wash of chicken stock and egg white. Sent out in cartons, this food deserves gift wrap. Okay, the dry-fried cauliflower droops by the time its lid is removed at home, but the seasoning is the blast furnace fans expect.
What took the Changs so long to open in the District? Ong points to the owners’ loyal suburban fans, who eat early, show up in groups and prefer restaurants with parking lots. “D.C. isn’t set up for that,” says Ong. Even so, Chang Chang is packing ’em in. Lunch, featuring the same dishes as on the “Chang Out” (takeout) list, provides a great excuse for nearby workers to return to the office. Dinner, showcasing more elaborate preparations, gathers what Ong calls “the fun crowd” and Lydia Chang, 35, tags as “foodies.”
Much as I like grazing on the Changs’ greatest hits at home, including mapo tofu and bamboo fish, I love the thrill of the new in the dining room, where the wide-ranging menu, dubbed “Chang In,” is broken into categories: bites, small plates, vegetables, large plates, etc. Revered as Peter Chang is for his Sichuan creations, “he’s restless,” says his daughter, ever eager to open new places to eat and offer dishes that go beyond what the master is known for.
No other Chang restaurant serves pig terrine, for instance. The “bite” is actually seven squares of pork fashioned from braised pork feet and shoulder, topped with aspic and garnished with crisp watermelon radishes and Asian pear. Drizzled with a stinging mala vinaigrette, the dish makes Canton taste close.
Opposite in every way, but also luscious, are spring rolls stuffed with dried and fresh shiitakes, hen of the woods and oyster mushrooms — a forest of fungi and vermicelli bundled in crisp pastry and accompanied by an emulsion of Chinese vinegar, ginger, garlic and white pepper designed as a nod to the Worcestershire sauce favored by Hong Kong diners. Head chef Simon Lam, 33, plucked from NiHao in Baltimore and of Chinese-Vietnamese descent, had the neat idea to offer lettuce wraps, allowing diners to protect their fingers from the piping hot cigars before plunging them in what’s billed as wo sauce. (Better still: minty shiso leaves for wrapping the kitchen’s crisp-edged sliced pork belly.) Another vegetable to remember stars eggplant, tossed in a wok with fermented soy beans and chiles to make everything smoky, and arranged in its bowl with scallions and what look like white clouds but are in fact tufts of tofu espuma. Some like it hot — and cold. Enter the eggplant-tofu duo.
“I love sugar,” says Ong, the talent behind the walnut prawns, which steer clear of the usual cloying glop. Marinated in wine, the seafood is lightly battered, fried and glazed with condensed milk, orange juice and chopped walnuts. The result: a velvet coat for delicious shrimp.
Changians, as devotees of the chef are known, might spot a familiar name or two on the menu, but chances are, they’re enhanced versions of earlier recipes. Here’s our old friend, cumin lamb chop, its kick extended with turmeric, coriander and black cardamom, and how great that the lamb is propped up by kabocha squash and lemony yogurt. Lisa Chang, 61, is synonymous with the blimp-like scallion bubble pancake she originated in her native China 30 or so years ago. At Chang Chang, the spectacle, swollen with steam, floats through the dining room atop a treasure of scallops, prawns and fish balls in a golden curry, an Ong touch. (Once pierced and deflated, the bread makes a sensational mop for the zesty sauce he thought to add.)
Do yourself a favor and request the duck “4 ways” the moment you sit down. The dish is fired to order and takes 45 minutes to get to the table.
No offense to the platter of duck, roasted low and slow to a beautiful rose color, but the rest of the feast consumes my attention. Don’t misunderstand; the sliced duck, aged for three days before it’s smoked with cedar and tea and massaged with five-spice and other enhancers, is a testament to succulence. Sip the broth that glides to the table, though, and you’re apt to swoon in the wake of ginger, onion and the sundry smoked duck parts that are as restorative as a walk in autumn woods. (The foie gras dumpling in the cup is almost superfluous.) Break into the nearby phyllo-wrapped pie, sprinkled with carrot top powder, stuffed with black forbidden rice and shredded duck confit, and marvel at the way Ong, its creator, combines cultures and cuisines. The pie bows to both biryani and bastilla. The $120 price tag might scare you off; keep in mind that the spread, including a crackling spiced duck wing, is plenty for six (and any leftover sliced duck makes for great next-day sandwiches).
One of the draws at the late Brothers and Sisters in the Line hotel was the dessert list by Ong, specifically his whimsical, dome-shaped cakes. The pastry chef prides himself on not repeating recipes, so no dome cakes at Chang Chang. Yet his latest creations are no less ravishing. You’ve never had chevre cheesecake like Ong’s, all goodness and light, built with lemon sponge cake and all but hidden beneath sheer slices of plum. Then there’s a yellow dagger of passion fruit pie — the pucker you desire after a lavish meal — garnished with pepper-spiked meringue wands. Full as you may be, request a cookie plate, if only to experience the affinity warm chocolate has with hot chiles.
It all sounds wonderful. Here and there, however, slips show.
Shrimp toast tastes as if the appetizer flew in from China — the flavor is spot on, but the texture is soggy. Braised ribs lean sweet at the expense of sour. Lydia Chang says she likes a minimalist space. But the dining room at Chang Chang is too spare for my taste, dressed with little more than some big round tables up front and alcove seating farther back. It’s as if the owners are relying on “the fun crowd” to enliven the restaurant at night.
And so they do, aided and abetted by Peter Chang. Despite his status, he has no problem ferrying bags of takeout to the front and occasionally stopping to smile at his seated audience. Same for the nonstop, everywhere pastry chef. Who knew one of the city’s best tour guides is working at one of Washington’s most thrilling new restaurants?
1200 19th St. NW. 202-570-0946. changchangdc.com. Open: Indoor dining for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Takeout hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Prices: Small plates $16 to $25, large plates $26 to $120 (for shareable duck four ways). Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Masks for staff are optional; all workers are vaccinated.