First Look: Peter Chang's

The rock star Sichuan chef opens his eponymous Atlanta eatery

Nobody's ever accused me of being a groupie. If I hear incessant gushing about a restaurant, I don't exactly lose interest, but something in me immediately wants to rebel. This is true of me in a general way and it is what prompted my mother to tell the adolescent me: "You don't just march to the beat of a different drummer, you're hearing a xylophone."

I don't think I have ever seen foodie hysteria reach the fevered pitch that the Sichuan chef Peter Chang has provoked. His story is well known. He came to the U.S. from China to be chef at his government's Washington, D.C., embassy in 2000. Then he hip-hopped around the South, never staying more than a few months at a restaurant. He landed at Tasty China in Marietta in 2006, turning a strip mall joint into a mecca. He left. He came back. His wake is littered with love letters, including one by Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker. If ever there was a case of critics humping a chef, this is it.

Now the beloved is at a new place, Peter Chang's (6450 Powers Ferry Road, Sandy Springs, 678-766-8766), opened by Tasty China's owners. He claims he's staying. And money grows on trees. I suggest you hurry there before the inevitable occurs.

My pathological skepticism admitted, I confess that, just like everyone else, my first visit to the restaurant so fascinated me that I began obsessing about returning, as did Wayne, who never, ever does that. Considering that we encountered dreadful service at the door and were forced to sit at a bar fronting a service area, this is saying a lot. (Get a reservation!) We returned a week later for lunch with six friends to try more.

I've thought and thought about what makes Chang's food so compelling. There's the novelty, of course. Even at the most ostensibly "authentic" Chinese venues, you don't encounter flavors like this. That's partly because true Sichuan cooking, with its liberal use of hot chilies and numbing peppercorns, is relatively rare. There's also a clear resonance of Indian flavors — most explicitly a balloon of thin pastry with a curry sauce. But, mainly, it's Chang's pure finesse. Like any superior chef, his work is alchemical — every dish an opus of attempted symmetry.

The problem for a newcomer to Chang's cooking is calculating overall asymmetry — diversity. At our lunchtime meal with friends, the preponderance of meat dishes and hot dried chilies with numbing peppers began to dissolve into one flavor. The servers at Chang's are mainly as new to the cuisine as many customers and they aren't great at helping pick an array of dishes.

Our initial dinner was more of a success, but we encountered a similar problem with our two entrée dishes. I ordered Peter's lamb chops from the specialties menu. It had no particular description of seasoning except a pair of red-hot chili peppers indicating maximum heat, along with "snow beans" on the side. We also ordered bamboo fish, deep-fried with green onions, cilantro and red chili pepper.

The lamb chops — served in a sunburst pattern — were absolutely spellbinding. What surprised me and disturbed me at first was the outrageously heavy use of cumin. It wasn't mentioned on the menu (whereas other dishes did mention it). Cumin is not my favorite seasoning, to say the least, but Chang uses so much of it, blended with hot chilies, that the effect is sweetness carried to an extreme piquancy. I finally love cumin! And let me be clear, the dish was far from blisteringly hot. It was mild. (And quite ordinary broccoli was substituted for the promised snow peas.)

The bamboo fish — chunks of the flavor sop called tilapia — were delicately fried and had a powdery finish. What could that be? Akkk! More cumin, also not mentioned on the menu. Suddenly it was cumin overload for me. An educated server would, I hope, steer diners clear of that. So you need to ask questions.

Our two starters at that meal were perfect and completely new to us. First was tofu shredded to the shape of noodles and heavily doused with hot chili oil, then spiked with cilantro. Next was an amazing plate of crispy pork belly — Chinese chicharrónes — over a bed of dried red chilies and slivers of fresh green ones. Here and there in several dishes we encountered the numbing peppercorns. This confused us a bit, too, because the server told us that no dish contained the ingredient unless the menu said so. Then why were our lips quivering?

My favorite dish among the 12 or so we ordered at lunch was the spicy fragrant duck — another deep-fried dish marked with two chili peppers but not even remotely hot to my palate. I also loved the fried Peter rolls and, even more, the oversized rice-paper rolls stuffed with "hot and numbing dry beef" and — I think — some slivers of fennel. More: a clay pot of mixed seafood, plus a couple of uninteresting dishes from the American Chinese menu to please two chili-fearing friends, who ended up eating the not-so-hot stuff, anyway.

A billion words will be written about this restaurant over the next few months. And, although I could go on and on, I've written my allotment.

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