The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Chowhounds tend to worry, not without reason, when a brand expands. (See: Five Guys.) So it was with crossed fingers that I returned to Peter Chang in Arlington and Rockville to see if the dining rooms bearing the name of one of the most mysterious and peripatetic chefs in the region were still firing on all cylinders. The former chef of the Chinese Embassy, after all, counts 11 outposts in his empire and plans a fine-dining restaurant, Qijian in Bethesda, next spring. Peter’s Big Bun, a soup dumpling with a well of porky broth, remains a winner, as does the signature dry fried eggplant, crisp-creamy spears that ignite a little fire with their seasoning of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Cumin-laced lamb chops still make me sigh, and among the enduring highs are the seasonal specials, in particular tea-smoked duck with Cheetos-orange fried onions. Some of the food is greasier than I remember it, notably the cigar-shaped fish rolls served on a little bamboo raft. Even so, they crackle at the bite. The Changs, I’m pleased to report, still deliver.
2 1/2 stars
Peter Chang (Arlingon): 2503-E N. Harrison St., Arlington, Va. 703-538-6688. peterchangarlington.com.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
Peter Chang (Rockville): 20A Maryland Ave., Rockville, Md. peterchangarlington.com
Sound check: 73 decibels / Conversation is easy.
Prices: Mains $11-$24.
The following review was originally published Dec. 2, 2015.
Peter Chang restaurant review: A master’s cooking, times two
The best neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Washington is just across the Potomac, in Arlington. Or so I thought after my maiden meal at Peter Chang, named for the onetime chef of the Chinese Embassy with a cultlike following.
No other competitor comes close to the bar set by Peter Chang, which since opening in March has become home not only to some memorably numbing Sichuan dishes, but to service that’s the equal of the kitchen’s output.
Then I ate at an even younger rival for my affection, in Rockville. That’s where Chang introduced his second area restaurant, also called Peter Chang, in April.
Few chefs enjoy a more mysterious past. When he bolted from the embassy as his contract was coming to an end in 2003, Chang became one of the most elusive cooks in the country, opening — and then disappearing from — a series of kitchens throughout Virginia and elsewhere. Consequently, his return to where he got his start is as much about coming full circle as about filling a gap in the dining scene.
With the exception of a sheet of specials, the menus at the sibling restaurants, both painted in shades of orange, are basically copies.
Rarely is double vision so welcome.
“Smell that!” a food friend says as we walk into the embrace of a smiling host at Peter Chang in Arlington.
“Smell that!” she repeats, as if anyone in the dining room could miss the perfume of garlic, chilies and onions — a whiff of a Sichuan pantry — hanging in the air. We have yet to open the menu but already predict fire in our future.
Your eyes tell you what to order first, no matter which branch you’re visiting: Scallion bubble pancakes, balloons of steam-filled bread nearly the size of basketballs. Amazingly, the domes keep their shape after the initial tear into their skins. Good by itself, the snack improves with a dunk in the accompanying curry sauce; better than any coloring book or tablet, the interactive pancakes, two to an order, also make great place-holders for any restless diners.
Tended to by a dozen or so Chinese chefs, these kitchens put considerable thought into the way their food looks. Fried fish rolls appear as a quartet of golden cylinders on a little bamboo raft. The cigar shapes crackle when teeth meet wrap, a sensation followed by a duet between hot flounder and pungent cilantro. “Grandma’s” marinated steamed pork ribs — slightly sweet, a touch peppery — rise from the opening of what resembles a sleek, toy-size canoe. The most arresting presentation over the course of multiple visits to both restaurants captured bites of crisp and snowy flounder beneath a lean-to made of woven cane. Scattered with dried chilies, cilantro, onions and cumin, the fish kept our chopsticks moving at warp speed until nothing remained but a sense of great contentment.
Even the plainer dishes can be playful. You’d have to be a Grinch not to brighten at the sight of Peter’s Big Bun, a $3 soup dumpling with a core of pork (meat and broth) — and a straw sticking out for easy sipping.
Read a story about Chang’s food, and one dish is certain to come up: dry fried eggplant, three simple words that don’t begin to explain the delight produced by vegetable spears massaged with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and cooked so their outside is crisp but free of oil and their centers remain creamy. The eggplant’s equal can be enjoyed as spicy slices of lotus root crunchy with peanuts and sesame seeds — well, at least if you hit the right night and the specials list in Rockville.
A visual sweep of neighboring tables, many occupied by diners who look as if they grew up with this kind of cooking, leads to more discoveries. Ribbons of double-cooked pork belly — with a texture akin to jerky, only softer and sweeter — display more “grandmother” cooking, this time with the assistance of cabbage, leeks and chili oil in the stir-fry. Anything labeled “hot & numbing,” including flounder sharing its clay pot with tofu, should be taken seriously, although the agreeable burning sensation never masks the flavor of the featured ingredients. When a votive-warmed casserole brimming with shrimp, beef, chicken and sweet potato noodles in a broth the color of lava is set before us, a waiter assures us “the fire goes out by itself.” He was referencing the flame but could have been addressing our tongues.
The drill at a lot of Chinese restaurants is variations on themes. Peter Chang makes every dish taste different, with repeat visits demonstrating a flair not just for fire, but for subtlety. Consider an appetizer of wood ear mushrooms — cool, earthy and jellylike — splayed over a mustard sauce with a hint of tingle. Or folds of velvety tofu skin tossed with pale green napa cabbage and a wash of white sauce bolstered with fresh garlic. A hot pot of duck and sour cabbage with silken tofu leaves a trail of white pepper in its wake.
Not every dish makes me swoon. Sweet and sour pork served in the Arlington location is a heap of corn-starch-tossed, deep-fried meat with little flavor save for its moistener, a ringer for caramel sauce. And a mocha cake at the Rockville branch, which puts more of an emphasis on sweets, is not so compelling you need to save stomach space for it. At other places, warm minced chicken eaten in cool lettuce cups and softball-size “lion’s head” pork meatballs bathed in onion gravy might be stars. At the Chang twins, those dishes face stiff competition from much of the rest of the menu.
My biggest regret is not having more time to explore the entire collection, more than 75 dishes long, a point driven home on my last visit to Peter Chang in Rockville when I overheard a nearby diner trying to absorb the lot in his hands: “Another page?” he wondered aloud.
No contest, the area’s best source for traditional Chinese right now is a tie between Arlington and Rockville. Washington, however, can take comfort in Chang’s plans, according to the chef’s business partner, Gen Lee. As of press time, Lee says lawyers were reviewing plans for a 7,000-square-foot restaurant featuring a takeout space and two dining areas, one devoted to fine dining, poised for the Navy Yard next year.
In that scenario, it’s a triple crown for the DMV.