Charlottesville cried into its hot and sour soup when legendary Sichuan chef Peter Chang skipped town, but then we counted our fortune cookies when he reappeared to open Peter Chang’s China Grill this spring. There, chefs trained in his techniques and fiery recipes give us a place to swoon and sweat seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
First to the table, beef tendon in a spicy garlic sauce. Later, pork soup dumplings and a beautiful plate of chewy wood ear mushrooms in pepper sauce. Beef brisket stew with potatoes and carrots in a ceramic pot was a table favorite, and the lightly fried flounder in a sweet and spicy sauce at the end of the meal was a welcome surprise. Baked lamb chops crusted with cumin, garlic, red chili and cilantro delivered a kick and the duck consommé cleansed the palate. Sesame rice balls filled with red bean paste topped off the evening’s feast.
Chef Chang comes this Sunday for the Paramount Theater’s Food, Wine & Film series (www.paramount.com), so in the name of diligent research, we summoned a group of 10 disparate foodies for a banquet-style Sichuan feeding frenzy. We were giddy with excitement, planning outfits with elastic waistbands and local wines to pair with the meal (see The Working Pour, p. 35).
Managers Gen and Mary Lee showed us to our long table in the heart of the jade green dining room decorated with orchids and gossamer butterflies. There was barely time to sip our wine before beef tendon in a spicy garlic sauce and wood ear mushrooms in a pepper sauce made it to the table. We dove in with gusto, Mary intimating to the ladies in the group how the wood ear mushrooms do wonders for the skin.
We were still face down in the mushrooms when Mary passed a dish of dry-fried eggplant under our noses. This was the dish that we’d heard about, read about and dreamed of. Within seconds, we were all wielding chopsticks like swords, battling for crispy spears studded with dried red chilis and nubby Sichuan peppercorns. With the jolt of a 9-volt battery, this perfumed and spicy berry from the prickly ash tree uncovers taste buds you never knew you had. Our server, Robert, overheard Paramount Marketing Manager Tami Keaveny joke that each dish should come with a box of tissues, and promptly brought her some to wipe her watering eyes.
Cuddling together in bamboo steamers were pillowy pork soup dumplings. Mary thwarted our chopsticks just as we were about to commit a dumpling massacre. She slipped a spoon under one of the precious orbs, stabilizing it gently with the chopsticks as she placed it on a plate as tenderly as she would a newborn. The bun was delightfully squishy and the pork juicy.
We took a break from the food stupor to lumber to the other side of the table for impressions. C-VILLE’s Chinese-food-obsessed editor, Giles Morris, said he felt like he was revisiting his favorite haunts in New York (Son La Kee), Boston (Taiwan Cafe), Chicago (Lao Sze Chuan) and San Francisco (House of Nanking), and couldn’t believe that it was all right here in a strip mall in his new hometown. Eljo’s owner Trent Thurston, who eats at Chang’s twice a week, worked for an Asian-owned company in NY for five years and developed an intense love for the cuisine by ordering the same chicken necks and feet he saw the Chinatown customers order. Each bite made Thurston chattier and chattier, the spice acting as a truth serum.
Back in our seats, meat became the focus —smoked crispy duck on pancakes smeared with sweet and smoky plum sauce; duck consommé in ceramic pots; baked lamb chops crusted with cumin, garlic, red chili and cilantro; a beef brisket stew in individual Buddha-topped pots. By this point, we’d drained the red, photographer Sarah Cramer Shields was standing on chairs for shots and the staff was singing “Happy Birthday” to a neighboring table.
Just as we were ready to wave the white flag, a colorful dish of lightly fried flounder in a sweet and spicy sauce came out alongside dishes of garlic stir-fried asparagus, snow peas and mushrooms. Both were fresh and bright and revived our protein-heavy palates. White wines came back out of their ice buckets, we found empty corners in our stomachs and we clapped for the chefs responsible for this gustatory voyage. Baseball-sized sesame rice balls filled with sweet red bean paste, still warm from the fryer, left us licking our fingers, contemplating how warmly we’d been welcomed by a culture and cuisine so different from our own, right here at home.
Sesame Rice Balls
In a deep-sided, heavy saucepan, preheat 3" of oil for deep-frying. Dissolve the brown sugar in 1 cup of boiling water. Make a “well” in the middle of the rice flour, add the dissolved sugar, and stir until you have a sticky, caramel-colored dough, adding extra boiling water as needed.
Pinch off a golf ball-sized piece of dough. Use your thumb to make a deep indentation in the dough and then use the thumb and index fingers of both hands to form the dough into a cup. Roll 1 level tsp. of sweet red bean paste into a ball and place it in the hole, shaping the dough over the top to seal, then completely cover with the remainder of the dough. Dip each ball into a small bowl of water and roll in white sesame seeds.
Deep-fry a few balls at a time for two minutes. Once sesame seeds are golden brown, use the back of a spatula or a large ladle to gently press the balls against the side of the wok or saucepan. Apply constant pressure until the balls puff up to double the size. Drain on paper towels and serve while hot. Makes 16.