P.F. Chang's is more bistro than Chinese nothing wrong with that
Special to the Seattle Times
You are seated for lunch at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, handed a lengthy drinks list, which includes more than 50 wines, all poured by the glass, and offered a martini. "It is Friday after all," coaxes the waiter — and indeed more than a few cocktail glasses can be seen on other tables. These are your first clues that despite the handsome reproductions of ancient Chinese art that surround you, P.F. Chang's is more bistro than Chinese.
Not (as Seinfeld might say) that there's anything wrong with that.
Those tempted to dismiss Paul Fleming's polished restaurant concept as just another chain eatery or pooh-pooh the food as inauthentic are missing the point. P.F. Chang's Chinese-style fare is good, plentiful and reasonably priced. And it offers something else that diners covet: deft customer service, from greeters who calculate to the quarter-hour how long your wait will be (and are more accurate in their predictions than any of the local weather forecasters), to the never-idle waitstaff who hustle at a pace set by the energetic rock soundtrack, to the quick-change artists who ready tables for newcomers seconds after they are vacated.
No doubt this is why, at 10 on a Friday night, when the rest of Bellevue is pulling in its sidewalks, there is still a wait for a table at Chang's. At 6 p.m. the wait can be an hour or more, at midday half an hour. Chang's no-reservation policy may frustrate some, but there is a way around it: If you call before you leave your home or office, they'll tell you the wait time and put your name on the list.
Once you check in at the front desk, you are tethered to a pager that doesn't let you wander even as far as Crate & Barrel next door. It does, however, permit you to lounge in leather-upholstered comfort by the fire in The Lodge, Bellevue Square's new multistory restaurant atrium whose tenants include another Paul Fleming production, Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill. Or you can stake out standing room at the long, elliptical bar, nurse a potent cocktail and lust after the attractive platters of food whizzing past from open kitchen to crowded dining room.
Those plates of iceberg lettuce leaves visible on almost every table aren't centerpieces or salads. They're meant for wrapping zesty shredded chicken ($6.95) or wok-tossed vegetables sprinkled with mint and lime ($5.95), two appetizers that deserve gotta-have-it status. Others are tender spare ribs ($5.95), either thickly glazed with a sweet-edged barbecue sauce or dry-rubbed with Chinese five-spice powder; crunchy, delicate crab-stuffed wontons ($5.95); and plump, savory pork dumplings ($4.95), steamed over bitter greens. After assessing your table's heat tolerance, your server will create a special dipping sauce, mixing the tabletop condiments — mustard, chili sauce, rice vinegar, chili oil and soy sauce — to your liking.
Chang's menu recommends a dish called "Szechwan from the Sea" ($11.95) — and so do I. The dish is offered with a choice of scallops, shrimp or calamari; I requested all three and for an additional $6 charge enjoyed a brimming platter of deftly cooked seafood glistening with garlic sauce zinged with red chili pepper. At lunch, shrimp are equally impressive as a solo act, supported by a rich lobster sauce ($7.95).
Spicy eggplant ($6.95) packs plenty of heat and garlic in a sauce so good you'll want to eat it with a spoon. Cantonese duck ($12.95) lacks a crisp skin, but the tender, flavorful meat is suffused with aromatic spices and sliced for folding into paper-thin pancakes along with shredded scallion and cucumber, and a dab of hoisin or plum sauce. Plenty of orange peel mellows the searing effect of chilies in the elegant orange peel beef ($10.95).
Crunchy pickled vegetables add an intriguing dimension to chicken chow fun ($8.95), noodles tossed with minced chicken, scallion, chili peppers and garlic. But noodles are this kitchen's most noticeable weakness. The wide rice noodles in the chow fun are a little mushy, the chow mein noodles more so, while garlic noodles are gluey to the point of inedible.
Everything at Chang's is served family style and most people leave with leftovers. Should you have room for dessert, forget green-tea ice cream and hit "The Great Wall of Chocolate," a six-layer fortress of cake frosted in buttercream, dredged in mini-morsels and sauced with raspberry and white chocolate. There's nothing remotely Chinese about it.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Providence Cicero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.