Dinner at Peter Chang’s China Grill was reason enough to come to Charlottesville. And I’m sorry to disappoint — especially since this is ostensibly a food blog above all else — but I must confess that it was not because of the food.
That’s not to say that the food isn’t very good. Very, very good, in fact. Some of the best Chinese food you’re likely ever to have unless you live in New York, San Francisco or, yes, China. (I’m talking to you, J in Beijing.)
The chef, Peter Chang, has earned a reputation for being an accomplished, yet elusive cook, who brings his talent to a kitchen in say, Fairfax, Va., or Knoxville, Tenn., sets up shop long enough for people to discover him and flock, and then leaves without a word.
As you can imagine this has frustrated many a fan, and there are posts and posts about it on food message boards tracking the whereabouts of Peter Chang, and extolling the virtues of his cooking once it’s been re-discovered. The chase got so out of hand that Calvin Trillin chronicled it (and the people doing the chasing) in a New York article last February: Where’s Chang? The chef who can’t shake his followers.
But a mysterious and famous backstory and the pleasure of discovering flavorful food in a strip mall in Virginia are not the reasons I praise this dinner with such loud trumpets. No, the reason is the company: This man, David, my godfather, who has been a friend of the family since before I was born.
Our conversation made this dinner one of the tops ever. It was honest, intelligent, funny and heartbreaking — all in the space of a couple of hours. And over coriander fish rolls, too.
First, I will touch on the food. We started with the scallion bubble pancake — a light, airy wisp of a thing that puffs up on the plate like a pillow.
It’s satisfying in a tear-it-apart-and-dip way, with a fried outside and doughy inside with the freshness of green onion. It’s nothing like those leaden things you see for sale in glass display cases in New York. (Blech.)
The coriander fish rolls came next.
Slightly sweet, a little like a mousse inside — or perhaps a quenelle. Along with the crispy wrapper, a real pleasure.
David recommended the soup.
I am bummed because I don’t remember the soup very well. I remember liking it and I remember it being an enormous portion (that David took home), but I don’t recall what kind of soup it was, and don’t see anything on the Peter Chang menu to jog my memory.
These dry-fried green beans were terrific, though:
Al dente, but they still gave way, with a spicy-sweet flavor from the onion and garlic and a nice char from the wok. An admirable version all around. (Want to see an SCF post on making these? Check out Janine’s contribution from Beijing here: Dry-Fried Green Beans Szechuan Style.)
A Kung Pao chicken:
Spicy! Good bits of chicken, fresh vegetables, silky sauce. Very tasty.
Sorry for the crappy photos, here.. This is Salt and Pepper Shrimp:
A good fried dish with a creamy sauce and great slaw. Not greasy at all.
And that was our meal. You could tell an experience hand was in the kitchen, indeed. But truly the memorable part of the night was our table talk.
We talked about poetry, literature, and learning. We talked about family, from the old times when my folks used to live in Virginia and Dad and David taught together at UVA, to what’s going on today with everyone scattered everywhere. David shared stories about my father, Sam (some of you might not know, he died in 1991). In one story, David told how, in the early 1970s, Sam, as an associate professor, was put in charge of the language department and though he was destined for failure because of his lack of status in the hierarchy, he set up some changes that have helped the department become one of the greatest in the country today. David also said Sam was the funniest person he has ever met. (I believe it. And I miss him so.)
Greg shared with David his idea for the book he’s working on, and we workshopped that a little bit, too. And we learned about Great Books, the series David is teaching. We had one of the finest times we can remember. And we practically closed the place down.
Thank you, David. We can’t wait to see you again soon.
The 411 on Peter Chang’s China Grill: The ever-elusive but talented chef Peter Chang has been tracked by Chinese food cognoscenti around the Mid Atlantic and South for years; his every move is chronicled on Internet food boards and became the subject of a Calvin Trillin piece in the New Yorker. The excellent food belies its modest setting — strip mall, black lacquered chairs, drop ceiling — but our advice is to get there while you still can, and don’t miss the coriander fish rolls. 2162 Barracks Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903. 434-244-9818, peterchangscharlottesville.com.