For something a bit different for this blog, I am going to comment on the recent frenzy over award-winning and mysteriously peripatetic Szechuan Chinese chef, Peter Chang, who has had articles about him by Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker, (abstract free, but full version gated, title "Where's Chang?") and by Todd Kliman Oxford American, ungated, (title, "Todd Kliman chases the perfect chef"). After cooking at the Chinese embassy in Washington, Chang began cooking at China Star in Fairfax, now a favorite hangout of Tyler Cowen of George Mason who is the author of the useful Washington Ethnic Dining Guide, along with many of his colleagues. Chang moved on to two other restaurants in Northern Virginia, then one in Marietta, Georgia, then one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and now is at Taste of China in Charlottesville, VA. I have eaten at China Star, where the current chef preserves some of Chang's recipes, and last night ate at Taste of China. Chang's food is tastier, but he has gone soft and cooled it down. Where Todd Kliman praises the "numbing" quality of his food, last night it did not numb, in contrast to what one finds now at his original venue, China Star in Fairfax. [more below the fold, hopefully]
I began going to China Star a few years ago after learning of it through Cowen's dining guide and after my daughter, Sasha, enrolled at George Mason University. China Star has become her favorite restaurant in the area, so we have now eaten there numerous times and know many of their dishes well. So, it was not surprising that with these articles out and Sasha home for spring break, we would be tempted to try Taste of China only an hour's drive away from Harrisonburg in Charlottesville. We got there about 5:30 and had to wait about 45 minutes for a seat (no reservations; the frenzy is intense). We ordered some dishes that are also served at China Star, such as spicy beef and tripe and also Szechwan chili chicken on the bone ("Qung Qing chili chicken" at Taste of China). Chang's current stuff is more subtle that the versions at China Star, and indeed astoundingly tasty. But it lacks a certain bite, certainly compared to China Star.
I suspect that what has happened is that Chang's long sojourn in places like Knoxville has Americanized him a bit, and perhaps he has accepted his celebrity as well. So, there is no separate menu for the hard core stuff, although the menu is separated into Chinese and "Chinese American" (conventional Chinese) sections. He seems to have toned down a bit, now that he is in effect appealing to masses waiting in long lines, not that I begrudge him his success (he was long rumored to keep moving because he "feared success"). In any case, his food is still extremely good.
I do recognize that we ate there only once, so it is possible that it was unuusally mild. It is also probably the case that one could ask for it to be spicier and he would deliver. I am a bit put off by the mob scene there, but if I do eat there again, I shall ask for them to give me the real punch and not the wimpy style.