The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Q by Peter Chang
The newest of the restaurants in the realm of Peter Chang is also his biggest and best. Devotees of the chef — famous for having cooked at the Chinese Embassy and running off to open places hither and yon — will be cheered to find some of his signatures, scallion bubble pancakes and dry-fried eggplant included. But Q, which is short for qijian (“flagship”) in Mandarin, also calls to fire eaters with whole prawns scattered with chiles and to dim sum enthusiasts with novelties such as “three delicacies” spring rolls. Richer than they sound, the bundles, made with bean curd, pack in pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots and more. Peking duck is a bore, but Chinese “tapas” rock, especially the seasonally changing small plates. With the stylish food comes a modern backdrop: carved screens and a palette of green, the color of harmony.
Q by Peter Chang: 4500 East West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-800-3722. qbypeterchang.com.
Prices: Mains $15-$30.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following was originally published August 30, 2017.
Chinese food, elevated with fresh ideas
To understand the jade-colored chairs and the “thousand-layer” vegetable roll at the most ambitious Chinese restaurant to open in years, it helps a diner to know what the first letter in its name, Q by Peter Chang, stands for in Mandarin.
Q is an abbreviation of qijian, a reference to “flagship.”
Raise your hand if you haven’t heard of Peter Chang. Anyone? By now, devotees of Chinese food and detective work know the tale of the native of Hubei province who worked his way up the cooking ladder to become the chef of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, which he walked out of in 2003, never to return.
Since then, Chang has opened restaurants throughout the Mid-Atlantic, building toward a place where he wouldn’t be just the chef, but also the owner.
Q in Bethesda, his 10th and largest establishment, is the entrepreneur’s longtime dream of a restaurant that allows him to stretch as never before. Situated on the ground floor of an office building, the doors open to an expansive dining room set off by giant plexiglass light fixtures. Making subtle Chinese points are elegant carved screens and a design that relies on green, a symbol of harmony and prosperity. The palette gives me an opportunity to suggest Chang’s jade tofu, a block of braised tofu set in a verdant scallion puree. The dish, presented in a raised bowl kept warm with a votive, is one of the chef’s many fresh ideas.
Not that nostalgia buffs will go hungry. Changians will cheer a number of holdovers from the chef’s other outposts, which include branches in Arlington, Rockville and Richmond. The familiar plates include the globe-shaped scallion bubble pancake that I always order just to watch first-timers’ eyes pop. Best pierced with a chopstick, the beige balloon releases a cloud of steam before collapsing on its plate, after which it’s torn into pieces and dabbed in a side dish of dusky cumin sauce. The new restaurant also resurrects foil-tipped cumin lamb chops, pounded to flatten the meat, which is briefly marinated in soy and oyster sauces, then stir-fried in a wok with carrots, onions and dried chile peppers. Toasted ground cumin and pungent cilantro complete the shock treatment; brace yourself for some heat and the numbing effect of the Sichuan spicing.
Chang, who employs a Bethesda kitchen staff of nearly 20, acknowledges the enduring popularity of small plates by devoting a page of the menu to Chinese “tapas.” By any name, a trio of empanada-shaped “pies” rewards recipients with fillings of ground chicken and fresh dill. “Hot & Numbing” beef rolls prove an exaggeration, but there’s no denying the pleasure of crumbled beef, rosemary and chiles — a taco filling by way of Asia — rolled up inside soft, crepelike wrappers. (Keep an eye out for seasonal offerings, too, maybe the aforementioned vegetable roll: tofu skin wrapped around yam and lotus root puree, deep-fried and arranged in pieces on a mound of firecrackers in the form of wok-warmed onions and chiles.)
Food described as hot doesn’t necessarily torch the tongue. It will, however, leave your lips tingling and animate the chopsticks of heat seekers. Consider heads-and-all chili prawns, part of a collection of dishes billed as the “Ultimate Spicy Challenge.” Scattered with chopped red and green chiles, along with crisp snow peas and garlic, the steamed seafood looks like dynamite waiting to be detonated. While plenty racy, the combination, which also fits in tofu, is not so fiery that the sweet succulence of the prawns gets lost.
“Let’s Meet Here” on the menu shows the restaurant’s lighter side; the category gathers meat dishes. (Catch the play?) Among the novelties is Fu Rong chicken, slices of breast meat whose velvety surfaces come by way of a veneer of mousselike pureed chicken. Steamed broccoli serves as a nice frame for all the ivory, finished with a delicate white sauce.
In addition to the standing menu, dim sum is offered on weekends. Stick with the usual suspects — steamed shrimp dumplings, fluffy pork-filled buns — and you’ll be satisfied. But the real pleasures are the less common little dishes. Springy shrimp balls encased in slivered almonds and “three delicacies” spring rolls remind us that dim sum translates from Chinese to “heart’s delight.” The rolls are understatements, their sheer bean curd wrappers encasing shrimp, pork, shiitakes and bamboo shoots, everything moistened with a light wash of brown sauce.
One of the few letdowns is Peking duck. I’ve sampled the appetizer three times now, and the sauce-varnished model continues to elude me. The ideal involves glassy skin, succulent spiced flesh and fruity hoisin sauce. Here, the skin barely registers a crackle, the meat is tepid and the hoisin sauce, meant to be slathered on the rice pancake and bundled up with julienne cucumber and scallions, comes across as a dessert topping.
Anyone visiting around the time the place opened in May should know that the family-owned restaurant has recovered from some of its early hiccups. Along with a broader selection of dishes, the service is more solicitous (the phone gets answered now) and when you inquire about a dish, you’re apt to get the kind of detail a cook might provide.
The shortage of worthy Chinese restaurants in the area makes the latest of Chang’s offerings especially attractive. Even as it settles in, Q is advancing the cause.