Peter Chang is hitting the road again, and he’s taking Virginia wine with him.
The famously peripatetic chef, said to serve some of the best Chinese food in the country, will prepare a banquet to celebrate the start of the Year of the Dragon on Monday at the James Beard House in Manhattan.
A Beard House dinner before the glitterati of the New York food scene is an important milestone for chefs seeking national prominence. Chang’s appearance has been so highly anticipated that the Jan. 30 dinner sold out two weeks in advance; it falls during the two weeks that lead up to the Lantern Festival of the Chinese New Year.
Also on the marquee: Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards, who will tackle the challenging task of pairing wines with Chang’s spicy Sichuan cuisine.
Why Virginia wines? “Because we are from Virginia, and they make good wines here,” says Gen Lee, Chang’s business partner at Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville and a new restaurant, Peter Chang Cafe, set to open next month in downtown Richmond. Lee says he chose Jefferson because of its history. Parts of the winery’s vineyards near Monticello are on the same site where Thomas Jefferson planted European grape varieties. But the choice also sends a message that the famously migratory Chang is, at last, planning to settle down and call Virginia home.
Chang, 49, a native of Hubei province, was considered one of the top-ranked chefs in China when he landed the head chef job at his country’s embassy in Washington in 2001. He became
something of a sensation in America seven years ago, not just because of his complex, spicy Sichuan cuisine but also because as soon as he developed a following at any one restaurant (China Star and Szechuan Boy in Fairfax, TemptAsian in Alexandria, among them) he would leave, only to turn up manning a wok at another place a few weeks later.
His dishes and his whereabouts were avidly dissected on food Web sites such as Chowhound and DonRockwell.com. Aficionados followed him from Northern Virginia to as far afield as Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta, with each sighting sparking rumors and hopes — often dashed — that he might settle down and cook for a while. Chang’s restlessness and the devotion of his followers inspired major magazine profiles by the likes of New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin, and Lee says a movie about the chef is in the works.
For the past year, Chang has been splitting his time between the restaurant in Charlottesville and another, called simply Peter Chang, in Atlanta. (The two restaurants have different ownerships, though Chang has an interest in each.) With Lee acting as interpreter, Chang said he is relocating to Richmond to make the new Peter Chang Cafe his base, a place to train chefs in authentic Sichuan cuisine. He and Lee, himself a retired corporate chef, hope to open a second, larger place in Richmond later this year, and Northern Virginia is high on their list for a budding Peter Chang restaurant empire.
But what to drink with this addictive cuisine? Chinese food is usually considered a difficult partner for Western grape wines, primarily because a typical meal features several dishes and flavors at once without the usual orderly progression of courses easily matched by wines. Sichuan cuisine adds the factor of spice, or “ma la.” Ma means numb and refers to the mouth-tingling effects of Sichuan peppercorns, the aromatic, somewhat medicinal tasting spice of Sichuan cuisine. Ma balances the la, which means spicy, or hot, as in the heat of peppers. Chang explained to me how he uses two types of fresh jalapenos, plus two “mountain chilies” imported from China. In the restaurant’s kitchen, Lee pointed out a large bin that had held the day’s allotment of dried tien tsin peppers. Many of these were now in a large stockpot steeping in oil, while two cooks chopped another pile of them to use in cooking.
Such heat and palate-numbing spice can be lethal to wine. “I usually drink baijiu,” Chang says, referring to the potent Chinese liquor that best translates as “white lightning.” Baijiu will not be on the menu at the Beard House.
“Everyone’s first reaction is that it’s impossible to pair wines with Sichuan food because it’s so spicy,” Reagan says when explaining how he chose which Jefferson wines to feature in New York. “The first time I ate Peter’s food, my main impression was how complex the aromas were, so I tried to pick some wines that would match that complexity.”
To test Reagan’s pairings and to celebrate the Year of the Dragon, I recently arranged a New Year’s feast at Chang’s Charlottesville restaurant and invited several Virginia winemakers. The table of 10 guests spun a Lazy Susan filled with Chang’s creations and laden with bottles of Virginia wine: sparkling, off-dry petit manseng, earthy pinot noir, deep, rich petit verdot and many flavors in between.
Reagan also followed the principle of pairing sweeter wines with spicy food: The heat makes the wine taste drier. “Our viognier and our pinot gris are our most intensely aromatic wines, and they also have some residual sugar and high acidity to extinguish the heat,” he says. He paired the Jefferson 2010 Pinot Gris with Chang’s selection of five appetizers, including Chang’s signature eggplant fries. The 2010 Viognier, which includes some Riesling and petit manseng in the blend for sweetness and perfume, he matched with steamed duck with hot peppers, one of six courses with the main dinner.
We were stunned by the artistry on the plates. The chef, whose tall, crisp toque augments his slight build, produced slivers of cucumber arranged to portray a bamboo forest over a mound of “bang bang” shrimp, along with a bonsai of sauces growing from a “pot” of marinated duck. His pan-fried lotus root stuffed with sticky rice resembled coins (a symbol of wealth for the new year) and electrified our palates with ma la, while paper-thin tofu skin sauced with ginger provided a counterpoint to the seriously spicy “hot and numbing dry beef.”
I had given the winemakers little guidance about which wines to bring to match this cuisine. We tried dessert wines with the first course, including a sweet petit manseng from Veritas Vineyard and a port-style wine called “7” from King Family. The spice made each of those wines taste drier, but they were still a bit heavy for the delicately flavored food. Off-dry wines, such as the Horton Vineyards 2008 Petit Manseng or Blenheim’s Painted White 2010 blend, also fared well with a variety of dishes. Blenheim winemaker Kirsty Harmon said the Hungarian oak she used to age her wine gave it a clovelike flavor that matched the hint of Sichuan peppercorn in several of the dishes.
Chang’s eggplant fries, served with a fish-and-crab soup, vegetable dumplings and crispy fish rolls, upped the ante a bit on the spice, and here the group favored sparkling wines, such as the Thibaut-Janisson Fizz, as well as effervescent ciders from Foggy Ridge, one of several Virginia farm wineries producing sparkling ciders from heritage apple varieties. Foggy Ridge owner Diane Flynt noted that the bubbles in her cider and the sparkling wine had the curious effect of prolonging, rather than enhancing or dimming, the numbing effect of the spices. It was as if a tuning fork had been struck and the sound, clear and pure, resonated gradually into silence.
Yes, bubbles go with everything.
Chang’s menu wasn’t all heat. Cod coated in rice flour, then steamed in lotus leaf had a grainy texture that Veritas winemaker Emily Pelton called “Chinese grits.” In New York, this dish will match well with Jefferson’s 2007 Chardonnay Reserve, showing aged characteristics of barrel-fermented chardonnay. It also danced with the just-bottled Veritas 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, fresh and grassy. “Chairman Mao’s favorite braised pork” was rich and fatty and responded well to the Jefferson 2008 Meritage and the Ankida Ridge 2010 Pinot Noir.
Our most challenging pairing was the Sichuan-style roasted lamb chops, smothered in chili peppers and mouth-numbing with its heat. Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards, compared the sensation to “licking a 9-volt battery.” I preferred tasting the lamb with the Blenheim Syrah or the King Family Petit Verdot.
After the lamb came shrimp with fresh chili peppers, a Sichuan palate-cleanser that would be inconceivable on a European menu. Chang was throwing us the ultimate challenge to traditional wine-food pairings. I had a two-word answer: Jefferson Viognier.
As we left the restaurant that night, I complimented the chef and told him that, because of his reputation, I had expected the food to be hotter.
Chang smiled slyly and confessed that he had gone easy on the spicing: “I gave you two chilies, not three,” referring to the popular menu key for heat in Sichuan cuisine. It was as though he was saying one meal would not be enough to understand what he wanted to convey through his food, or which wines to pair with it.
I was a bit disappointed. But I was already thinking of a return trip to experience the full Chang treatment.