How fortunate for Howard County. I’d walk to the last chef’s draw – #14, for those who matter – just for pork in garlic sauce, squiggles of juicy meat in a jumble of wavy mushrooms, fresh bamboo matches and several shades of peppers.
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The 75-seat restaurant and 56-course menu are small by Chang’s standards. You’ll want to book reservations ahead of any visit or hope for free seats at the bar, where over several trips the view of the splashy Merriweather district has transformed from an ice rink to a man-made lawn. The dining room is spartan but attractive, adorned with wooden slats and a honeycomb design on one wall, and with booths that seat six customers comfortably (but which no doubt makes servers want arms several meters).
Nobody needs to plug the scallion bubble pancake, created by Chang’s wife and co-chef, Lisa Chang. The mere sight of the golden globe crossing the dining room entices takers. The brand’s subscribers know how to poke the steam-inflated spectacle with their chopsticks and tear off pieces of warm bread, which can be dipped in the accompanying curry sauce or eaten with the most sausage dishes.
Your next move should involve dumplings. The kitchen, helmed by Chef Yabin He, whips up the kind of one-bite snacks you hope to find on the dim sum run. Here, the “heart treat” includes delicate snow-white steamed pork dumplings and wrinkled wontons filled with minced shrimp and pork zapped with chilies.
“Grandma’s” noodles take guests to Sichuan. The seasoning for the pleasantly chewy wheat noodles is tangy and flamboyant with minced garlic, chili oil, Chinese black vinegar (still hungry ?) and ground Sichuan peppercorns, the last of which gently numbs the tongue, but not so much that you can’t taste all the rest. Sichuan peppercorns are also responsible for the pleasure-pain of Yangtze River Beef, one of the company’s new compositions, a shareable bowl of milk soup, dancing with small packets of rice noodles and steak shaved side. The broth sports the kind of heat that starts out great, then gives way to “yikes!” Recipients look up from their bowls to see who can stand the fire. The empty bowls attest hit.
The scallion bubble crepe isn’t the only head-turner here. The snack contest includes the chicken and lettuce wrap. You’d expect to see the dish served with crispy fresh greens to rock the shiny ground chicken, but not its mode of transport: a basket resembling a sunburst, with spikes of dried noodles fried to a crispy crisp. Luckily, eating is as joyful as watching the delivery.
Every vegetable dish I’ve tasted is a model of how it should be done, testifying to the Eastern school of Chinese cuisine’s reverence for produce. The green beans appear crisp and smoky after their brief stint in a hot wok, with a nice punctuation of olive vegetable, an earthy Chinese condiment made in part with canned mustard greens. Baby bok choy is a shade of green that suggests a brief steaming before blending into the silky skin of the tofu. Then there’s cabbage seasoned with fragrant five-spice powder and tossed with sweet Chinese yam and jalapeños – a touch of garden warmth. What you see is what you get: all the flavor of the vegetables.
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Let me save you the money and the disappointment and steer you away from the $40 Peking duck (for half), the most expensive dish on the menu. Slices of gray duck smothered in oil-soaked fried shreds of skin taste like the work of another lesser kitchen. Even hoisin sauce, cucumbers and green onions wrapped in homemade wraps can’t save the entree.
Instead, dedicate your stomach space to one of the aforementioned dishes, or anything with “cumin” in its title. Hot spices feature in some of my favorite Chang creations (if you see it elsewhere, spring for the cumin lamb chops), including the Columbia branch’s cumin fried fish: flounder wrapped in crackling jackets golden paste.
As different as they are, Chang’s diverse restaurants, including NiHao in Baltimore and Mama Chang in Fairfax, share a common thread: consistency. I guess some of that is explained in the training the cooks receive from The Man Himself at Peter Chang’s upscale Q in Bethesda, the owner’s home base. Lydia Chang, the star chef’s daughter and spokesperson, says her family is “always over-employing” in preparation for future restaurants and as a way to advance loyal employees. One example is Yabin He, who has known Peter Chang since the 1990s, when they cooked together in their native China on Yangtze River cruises. I never saw the owner here, but He gives the impression that the chef was always present.
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A great way to judge service in a restaurant is to see how a business recovers from failure. My attempt to get a basic cocktail on my last visit turned into a comedic routine involving at least five members of staff and a table mate going to the bar in search of the AWOL drink. (Six of us were trying to toast; the wait for the missing link turned out to be Metro-esque.) A manager and bartender’s response near the end of dinner was to introduce my group a Chinese spirit about to appear on the menu: clear firewater, as potent as grappa, poured from a red and gold flask into thimble-sized shot glasses . Suffice it to say, a punch was packed, and it was cheers all around for the otherwise engaging and educated servers on the menu.
My great hope for Chang and his company is that they stick to their mission – and push forward and multiply.
6000 Merriweather Dr., Colombia. 410-413-5887. peterchangcolumbia.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery, and takeout Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Outdoor dining is provided in warm weather. Prices: Appetizers $5 to $25, main courses $16 to $40. Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: Small foyer closed to the entrance; ADA compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Masks are optional for staff, who are all vaccinated, an official reports.