For a man who some consider the best Szechuan chef in the country, Peter Chang sure keeps a low profile. Even right here in Charlottesville, home to his flagship restaurant, many are unaware of the presence of the former Chinese embassy chef who has been featured in publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, to name a few.
But, among those in the know, Chang’s fans are feverish. For a recent beer feast at Peter Chang’s China Grill, tickets sold out almost immediately. Now that Chang has other restaurants dividing his attention, he is often away from Charlottesville, and it has become a rare treat to enjoy an entire meal that Chang designed and prepared himself. Last month’s “home-style” beer dinner offered just such an opportunity, and fans leapt at it.
Some of the area’s top chefs are among Chang’s biggest followers, many of whom were in attendance. They were dazzled.
“I was entirely blown away by the food, especially the depth of flavor and level of consistent execution of it,” said Dean Maupin, chef-owner of C&O Restaurant. Pei Chang, head chef of TEN Sushi, echoed Maupin’s praise, calling the food a true representation of Chinese home-style cooking.
Twelve tables of 10 enjoyed a family-style meal of six appetizers and five entrées, each course paired with a beer from Champion Brewing Company. Before the feast, the ever-bashful Peter Chang emerged from the kitchen, and, through an interpreter, told the crowd that his inspiration for the menu was food his mother and grandmother prepared for him as a child. If so, he was one lucky kid, and they were two busy women, given the complexity of the dishes, and the number of steps required to prepare each one.
The meal began with a show-stopper—a dish that Peter Chang himself considered his favorite of the night. Though often translated loosely as “smoked” fish, it was not in fact smoked at all, at least not in the American sense of the term. Instead, slices of flounder were first marinated in ginger and scallion, then fried, and then stewed in a sauce of ghost pepper, wine, sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce.
Former tavola chef Loren Mendosa, who raved about the entire meal, called it his favorite dish by far.
“I absolutely love the citrusy flavor of the ghost peppers themselves,” he said. “And having them with the firm fish was incredible.”
Chef Ian Redshaw, formerly of tavola and L’etoile, agreed.
“I could have eaten just that all day long.”
While Maupin also loved the fish, calling it “unreal,” his own favorite was a simple steamed bun with a filling of smoked tofu, diced celery, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, lotus root, carrots, and onions.
“I’m a sucker for those steamed buns,” he said.
Another hit was an entrée of pork ribs, again prepared in stages. Before being fried in bread crumbs, the ribs were infused with flavor by a slow stewing in a stock with a heady array of spices, like Chinese cinnamon, star anise, orange peel, Chinese licorice, sand ginger, and fennel.
Chang’s other favorite of the night, Szechuan Style Snapper, won the blue ribbon at our table. Whole snapper was steamed with Virginia ham, Szechuan pickled vegetable, dry chili pepper, ginger, scallion, and soy sauce.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was how stellar the beer pairings were. A young brewery with a focus on freshness, Champion Brewing Company has only a handful of beers at any given time. Yet owner and head brewer Hunter Smith still managed stunning pairings, which both Maupin and Mendosa called “impressive.”
“It’s not an easy task to pair with the intense flavors that Peter uses, and I really enjoyed every single one,” Mendosa said.
This was global fusion at its best—the harmony between craft beer brewed fresh in Charlottesville and food originating decades ago thousands of miles away.
Smith’s favorite pairing was Champion’s flagship Missile IPA with an entrée of lotus root cakes. Patties of diced lotus root and minced pork were fried on both sides, and then bathed in oyster sauce. Smith said he loved how the texture of the lotus root and sweetness of the sauce offset the bitterness of the hoppy ale.
Before the meal, Peter Chang’s business partner Gen Lee had warned me that the food would be the real deal, and might appeal to less than 1 percent of American palates. But, as it turned out, guest after guest heaped praise on the food, and it was not just chefs and insiders who enjoyed it. A friend of mine who is not in the industry said it might have been the best meal he’s ever had in Charlottesville.
Since the beer feast food might have broader appeal than Lee imagined, I asked how restaurant guests could sample something like it. Peter Chang’s daughter Lydia, who helps manage the restaurant, had a few tips. For one, guests may always call ahead and make a request. Alternatively, stick to the ever-changing “special menu,” which contains dishes “uniquely designed by Chang himself.” Best of all, she said, “we plan to host special events like this more often.”