How fortunate for Howard County. I’d trek to the chef’s latest draw — No. 14, for those keeping count — just for the pork with garlic sauce, squiggles of juicy meat in a jumble of wavy mushrooms, matchsticks of fresh bamboo and several shades of bell peppers.
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Both the 75-seat restaurant and the 56-item menu are small by Chang standards. You’ll want to book reservations ahead of any visit or hope for spare seats at the bar, where, over the course of multiple trips, the view of the splashy Merriweather District has morphed from an ice rink to an artificial lawn. The dining room is spartan but attractive, set off with wooden slats and a honeycomb design on one wall, and featuring booths that fit six customers comfortably (but that no doubt make the servers wish for yards-long arms).
No one needs to plug the scallion bubble pancake, created by Chang’s wife and co-chef, Lisa Chang. The mere sight of the golden globe passing through the dining room prompts takers. Subscribers to the brand know to poke the steam-swollen spectacle with their chopsticks and rip off swatches of the hot bread, which can be dunked in the accompanying curry sauce or eaten with the saucier dishes.
Your next move should involve dumplings. The kitchen, headed by chef Yabin He, makes the kind of one-bite snacks you hope to find on dim sum runs. Here, the “heart’s delight” embraces delicate, snow-white steamed pork dumplings and wrinkly wontons packed with ground shrimp and pork and zapped with chiles.
“Grandma’s” noodles whisk diners to Sichuan. The seasoning for the pleasantly chewy wheat noodles is pungent and blazing with minced garlic, chile oil, Chinese black vinegar (hungry yet?) and ground Sichuan peppercorns, the last of which gently numb the tongue, but not so much that you can’t taste everything else. Sichuan peppercorns are also responsible for the pleasure-pain in the Yangtze River beef, one of the company’s newest compositions, a shareable bowl of milky soup, bobbing with little bundles of rice noodles and shaved flank steak. The broth sports the kind of heat that starts out nice, then yields to “yikes!” Recipients glance up from their bowls to see who can endure the blaze. Empty bowls attest to success.
The scallion bubble pancake isn’t the lone head-turner here. The snack’s competition includes the chicken lettuce wrap. You expect to see the dish served with cool, crisp greens for cradling the glossy minced chicken, but not its mode of transport: a basket resembling a sunburst, with spikes of dried noodles fried to a snappy crisp. Happily, the eating is as joyful as eyeing the delivery.
Every vegetable dish I’ve sampled is a model of how it should be done, testament to the reverence the Eastern school of Chinese cooking has for produce. Green beans show up snappy and smoky from their brief time in a hot wok, with nice punctuation from olive vegetable, an earthy Chinese condiment made in part with preserved mustard greens. Baby bok choy is a shade of green that suggests a brief steam before it gets mixed with silky tofu skin. Then there’s cabbage seasoned with fragrant five-spice powder and tossed with mild Chinese yam and jalapeños — a touch of heat in the garden. What you see is what you get: the full flavor of the vegetables.
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Let me save you some money and disappointment and steer you away from the Peking duck, at $40 (for half) the most expensive dish on the menu. Gray slices of duck covered with oil-drenched slivers of fried skin taste like the work of another, lesser kitchen. Not even hoisin sauce, cucumbers and scallions bundled in housemade wraps can rescue the entree.
Devote your stomach space instead to any of the aforementioned dishes, or anything flagged with “cumin” in its title. The warm spice figures 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 swaddled in crackling jackets of golden batter.
Different as they are, the sundry Chang restaurants, including NiHao in Baltimore and Mama Chang in Fairfax, share a common thread: consistency. I figure part of this is explained in the training cooks get from The Man Himself at the upscale Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, the owner’s home base. Lydia Chang, the star chef’s daughter and spokesperson, says her family also “always over-staffs” in preparation for future restaurants and as a way to advance loyal employees. A case in point is Yabin He, who has known Peter Chang since the 1990s, when they cooked together in their native China on Yangtze River cruises. I’ve never seen the owner here, but He makes it taste as if the leader were ever-present.
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A great way to judge service in a restaurant is to see how a business recovers from a fumble. My attempt to get a basic cocktail on my last visit turned into a comedy routine involving at least five staff members 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 proved Metro-esque.) The response from a manager and a bartender toward dinner’s end was to introduce my posse to a Chinese spirit poised to make an appearance on the menu: clear firewater, potent as grappa, poured from a red-and-gold flask into thimble-size shot glasses. Suffice it to say, a punch was packed, and it was cheers all around for the servers, otherwise engaging and educated about the menu.
My big hope for Chang and company is for them to stick with their mission — and go forth and multiply.
6000 Merriweather Dr., Columbia. 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 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Outdoor dining is expected in warmer weather. Prices: Appetizers $5 to $25, main courses $16 to $40. Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Small enclosed foyer at entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Masks are optional for staff, all of whom are vaccinated, reports a manager.