Haute Chinese: Chang celebrates top ten honors

When the editors of Travel & Leisure Magazine set out earlier this year to find the best Chinese restaurants in America, they had a daunting task. There are now over 41,000 Chinese restaurants in this country, according to industry research– that's three times the number of McDonald's, making General Tso possibly more familiar to most people than Ronald McDonald. Of course, as native Chinese will tell you, most of the typical "Chinese" dishes you'll find in American restaurants are about as Chinese as a Big Mac. However, over the last few years, more authentic Chinese food has gained popularity, and what's more, Chinese cuisine, so often thought of as a kind of fast-food item, has begun establishing itself as haute cuisine for the American palate.

Remarkably, one of the stars of this movement, chef Peter Chang, opened a restaurant right here in Charlottesville just over two years ago. Since then, he's opened two more restaurants in Richmond and Atlanta and become something of a celebrity, cooking for movie stars and New York City food reviewers at the James Beard House, twice now. He's also the subject of a movie currently in production.

Another honor came recently when Travel & Leisure, sifting through all those restaurants, selected Chang's place as one of the top five Chinese restaurants in the country.

"The bold, exotic flavors will leave your tongue numb, especially if you opt for the Hot & Numbing Hot Pot, a combo of seafood, chicken, beef, and veggies submerged in a fiery red sauce," write the T&L editors.

They got that right. But there was one thing they got wrong: the magazine wrote that Chang, after developing a cult following, first opened his namesake restaurant in Richmond, when actually his first foray, Peter Chang's China Grill, was opened here in the Barracks Road Shopping Center in March 2011.

Chang, of course, knows that, and that's why he and his business partner, Gen Lee, along with Lee's wife Mary, hosted a celebratory dinner at the Charlottesville restaurant in appreciation of the honor from Travel & Leisure. Chang isn't always in the Charlottesville kitchen, as he visits the Richmond and Atlanta locations as well, but he was on hand last Thursday, March 14.

"He's more relaxed now," says Lee, who recently returned from China, where he was on a recruiting mission finding chefs who'll work at the other restaurants that he and Chang want to open. "Not so busy, busy, and so he is very happy."

Indeed, Chang certainly did look relaxed last Thursday, smiling brightly when he came out for his bow to applause, photos, and some fan excitement. A native of China's Hubei Province, Chang originally came to Washington, D.C. to cook at the Chinese Embassy, but soon began venturing out to cook at area restaurants. While he was cooking at Taste of China here in Charlottesville, New Yorker writer Calvin Trilling penned an article about him, and the rest is history.

At Thursday's dinner, Chang served up a variety of new entrées including steamed scallops buried in a kind of puréed turnip sauce, as thick as oatmeal. There was a diced, crispy sea bass with hot chili 'peper' [what's a Chinese menu without a few misspellings?] served in a basket that looked like an ice cream cone, and a spicy beef shank in wine sauce that melted in your mouth while numbing it. A tender duck breast with shiitake mushroom and bamboo shoots cooled the fire. And for dessert, sweet-filled dumplings as shiny and pattern-coated as an oversized marble.

Seriously, we are lucky to have someone in town doing what Chang is doing. At the recent James Beard Dinner in New York City, Chang tag teamed with with Scott Drewno of Wolfgang Puck's The Source in Washington, D.C., which specializes in contemporary Asian cuisine. Both Chang and Drewno were prominently featured in the lead article in Travel & Leisure, leaders as they are in the Chinese haute cuisine movement, I guess we can call it, and both their restaurants made it into the top 10.

Meanwhile, Lee says there are plans in the works for another restaurant in Fredericksburg.

"Mary and I came here to retire," says Lee, shaking his head, the quiet life he had imagined for himself and his wife when they moved to Charlottesville several years ago on hold, at least for now. "Now," he says, "it is just crazy."


The new restaurant Mr. Chang is opening in Ruckersville is going to be #1 in 2014!

"Haute cuisine" is not about making traditional dishes, no matter how well done. To use that term for what Chang does for the vast majority of his customers is as mistaken as suggesting that owning Calvin Klein's brand of underpants means one wears haute couture.

As well I guess, what is the Hook without a misspelling? It's Calvin Trillin.