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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Peter Cheng Cuisine dining review, Sandy Springs

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Chinese restaurants – the good ones, at least – are by and large not populist institutions. They present ordinary, Americanized menus to the clientele at large, and secret the interesting stuff away on a special “Chinese” menu. They may have verbal specials only available to special guests, or items served only at banquets. Some larger ones serve different menus on different floors of the building, so in order to eat well you must know where to sit. Chinese restaurant cuisine is by nature elitist.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

This may be why the chef Peter Cheng has emerged as such a populist hero. He wears his heart – which burns with the heat of a thousand hot chiles – on his sleeve. His specialties are there, front and center, for everyone who wants to revel in them. Adventurous American diners respond with cheers, and they see stars in a Peter Cheng menu. Chinese customers, however, aren’t exactly beating down the door. But there is no chef from the Middle Kingdom like him.

Cheng (he prefers this spelling to the usual “Chang”) has a story that has been well and oft told. The one-time chef at Marietta’s Tasty China first became famous in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. He has traveled up and down the East Coast and into the pages of The New Yorker like a culinary pied piper, leading a trail of devoted spiceheads who followed his every peregrination, chopsticks waving in the air. He has broken and then cheered the hearts of these people who find him, lose him, and then find him again in, say, Knoxville or Charlottesville, Va.

Crispy pork belly (omigod delicious; photos by Becky Stein)

Crispy pork belly (omigod delicious; photos by Becky Stein)

Now he seems to have settled into a Sandy Springs restaurant with his name on the door. Peter Cheng Cuisine. It seems like he’s staying put. The former Olive’s Waterside looks a little like the Brady Bunch house, with its stack stone, earth-colored tile foyer and open-slat staircase. It has a cozy bar that is sometimes stocked with beer, a pond outside the plate windows and a small army of Chinese and American servers who understand the cooking in varying degrees.

It is not yet a very good restaurant, though it is sometimes a brilliant one. Cheng and company are trying something new here: cooking more expensive food (entrees climb into the $20s) at a higher volume in a decorous setting. The trappings, which little mattered at Tasty China, need to be more on point. If you go to this restaurant, you will revel in some of the dishes – particularly if you have a high tolerance for spice – wonder what the fuss is about with some of the other ones, and with any luck have a good service experience.

Shredded tofu skin in chili sauce

Shredded tofu skin in chili sauce

We certainly did on our first visit, arriving with a bottle of wine in tow (corkage is $10). The menu is, per Cheng tradition, so huge and filled with mystery that you just want to throw a dart or three and see what arrives. Cheng’s wife, Hong Ying Zhang, prepares the appetizers, which are often exceptional. Fried “bubble pancakes” ($3) puff into puri-like balls and come with a curry dip. Cold smoked chicken slivers and cucumber spears ($9) share a creamy, spicy mustard sauce that will have you surreptitiously cleaning the plate with your index finger. Crispy pork belly, breaded and fried ($8), tingle with spice, make a satisfying keeee-runch, and then fill your mouth with sticky, flavorful meat. Cold shredded tofu skin (the resilient membrane that forms on top of the bean curd, $8) comes bathed in a hot chile oil and has the power to captivate everyone who tries it.

Cheng is best known for his abundant use of hot chiles and Sichuan peppercorns that in concert make your tongue feel like it has been eating pure electrical current. But the fact is he has a moody side to his cooking, as well, that shouldn’t be overlooked. Shenxian duck soup ($11 for up to four people, $20 for up to eight) arrives in a rustic clay terrine and sports duck slices, springy little pork meatballs and clear noodles in a softly haunting broth you won’t soon forget. Another fine clay-pot soup (also $11 and $20) features tender, bony cubes of beef spare rib and sundry slips of mushroom in a cloudy broth.

Chef Peter Cheng

Chef Peter Cheng

Now let the fireworks begin! Cheng’s famous braised fish in chile oil ($16) brings many firm white slips of swai (a Vietnamese fish, sometimes called iridescent shark) and Chinese cabbage literally dripping with orange oil and handfuls of peppercorn. I fished around the bowl looking in vain for the soft tofu that used to join the party at Tasty China, but couldn’t find any.

Bamboo fish ($16) is more how I remember the Tasty China classic, with its spicy strips of fried swai peeking out from beneath a lattice bamboo decoration. It is very salty and very hard to stop eating.

I am less enamored of the much-touted “Peter lamb” ($22) – a platter heaped with spice-rubbed lamb chops, each bone wrapped in aluminum foil for easy lifting. I find the meat has a sour edge and the troweled-on spices taste strongly of cumin. Not that nice freshly roasted cumin flavor, but rather acrid powdered cumin.

Nor do I care much for the steamed shrimp ($20), butterflied in their shells and lavished with a fine dice of sweet-and-sour red pepper, as the shrimp themselves are mealy. At these prices, I expect top-notch ingredients.

"Peter Duck"

"Peter Duck"

And slicker service. On my second visit, it’s pretty well a disaster. When waiters do come to the table, they look completely freaked out by the crush of business, and the food arrives at a painstaking, helter-skelter pace. We get some food but have no plates. It takes more than a few minutes to flag someone down, wait and finally get warm, wet, dirty plates. This restaurant needs a couple of months to work out its front-of-the-house issues.

But then there’s the food. We order the “Peter duck” ($20) – a superheated earthenware vessel containing a bubbling mixture of sliced bone-in duck, whole spices and huge fluffs of green onions and cilantro. I can taste cinnamon, I think, and star anise, and so many chil es tempered against the freshness of the greenery, and the meaty savoriness of that juicy duck. Amazing.

Peter Cheng is a brilliant cook. If you can wait for his restaurant to iron itself out, give it a month. If you can’t, go now.

PETER CHENG CUISINE
6450 Powers Ferry Road, Sandy Springs, 678-766-8765
2stars5Food: Cheng’s creative (and often sublime) take on Sichuan cuisine
Service: can be slow, scattered and frustrating
Best dishes: smoked chicken with mustard sauce, crispy pork belly, Shenxian duck soup, “Peter duck,” shredded tofu skin in hot chile oil
Vegetarian selections: loads
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Children: fine
Parking: in lot
Reservations: parties of 10 or more
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: no
Noise level: moderate
Patio: yes, will open during summer
Takeout: yes
RatingsKey_3

35 comments Add your comment

Rodney

February 11th, 2011
8:19 am

I’ve been waiting to go for exactly the issues above – even the most talented Chef can’t control the chaos of a new resto. I figure around March I’ll be about a bi-monthly visitor … :)

If ONLY for crispy pork belly …

[...] Anita Lau wrote an interesting post today Here’s a quick excerpt Brilliant chef in an ambitious new restaurants that is still working out kinks. [...]

Food Near Snellville

February 11th, 2011
9:07 am

My brother works in Shanghai these days, a financial consultant. This last Christmas, in a modest Tex-Mex establishment in Louisiana, he ends up surprised that his waitress replaces his sides when they don’t come out the way he wanted them. His comment: “You don’t get service like that in China.”

The question in my mind since has been, if you have a largely Chinese restaurant in America, largely staffed by immigrants, is it reasonable to expect them from the “get go” to have American style service? I’m offering this as a question to ponder, as opposed to a critique.

FnS

Kirk

February 11th, 2011
9:16 am

Are the Christmas decorations still up? How did you know to byob? They don’t tell you when you call. The food is great, the rest of the experience is a disaster.

Seth G

February 11th, 2011
9:40 am

“It is not yet a very good restaurant…” duh, that’s an understatement.

the entire place doesn’t feel like a chinese restaurant, it’s too american, as with the service staff. they don’t know the menu at all and doesn’t understand that patrons need utensils to eat. and chopsticks is request only. unreal.

food is ok, was better when everything was under one roof at tasty china. splitting it in two only gives you two half-arsed restaurants. but this doesn’t make a difference to the people here since their palate and taste is based solely on hearsay. it will need more than a month to work out all the inexperiences, try 3-4 months because the staff is oblivious. at these prices, you want perfection in the food from a self proclaimed perfectionist. right now its just red propaganda. anyone who thinks this is amazing Sichuan food at this time is only fooling themselves.

2 stars is more than generous at this point.

PJ

February 11th, 2011
9:52 am

I loved the food and agree about the service – certainly not spot on at the moment. I was there with a Taste Network wine dinner, so I had the opportunity to experience many items both on & off the menu, many of which I would never have thought to order, but fell in love with at first bite. The tofu skin in chili oil is a perfect example. I’m not a tofu fan, but this is an amazing dish. I didn’t even realize they were tofu “noodles” until someone enlightened me. I’m glad to see the crispy pork belly on the menu as an app. My husband & I ordered it once at Tasty China and ended up with a cornucopia of fried bacon (literally in a cone-shaped wicker basket). It was a HUGE portion and, while I enjoy pork belly, this was enough to feed at least 12 people. I would certainly order it as a starter. I’m sorry to hear the “Peter lamb” was disappointing. We dined on an off-menu item, Shan City Lamb, which was amazing. I’m also not generally a lamb fan, but this was off the charts good – my favorite dish that evening. Perfectly seasoned lamb ribs got better with every bite. We probably sampled 20 items, but my favorites were: the tofu skin in chili oil; cold, thinly-sliced beef starter; Shan City lamb; soup dumplings; and some sizzling broth dish with fish, chicken and beef. The steaming sticky buns filled with bean paste were the perfect ending to the meal. I can’t wait to go back and explore even more of the menu.

BryAnn

February 11th, 2011
9:58 am

I went the weekend it opened in Dec. Was very excited because of what I’ve heard of him, of Tasty China, etc. The food was good, though all of what we happened to order had the same texture: spicy, salty and crunchy. After a while it was hard to remember what was pork, or duck, or beef. At least the bok choy and mushrooms was allowed to let their own flavors shine.

The service wasn’t great and I’m surprised that it still isn’t. Wouldn’t something as basic as staff training have been done *before* opening? It’s been a few months, why is it still so bad?

They need to hire a business manager who can take care of these business issues. Because good food alone is not enough for a restaurant to succeed.

Steve

February 11th, 2011
10:00 am

Solid review. You’ve hit a lot of the great dishes that makes this place great. I would also throw the hot and numbing beef appetizer in the mix. Its served hot (temp) and has a bit of sweetness to it, which is different from the Tasty China dish that shares the same name.

The one other thing that I’d like to comment on is the following statement: “This restaurant needs a couple of months to work out its front-of-the-house issues.”

In my opinion, the service here is not going to improve. I’ve been to PC’s several times and to Tasty China more times than I can count, and both restaurants have had issues with service from the first trip I made.Tasty, which has been in business for a while, still has the same issues with front of house.

The big issue here is a language barrier. The majority of employees have a hard time speaking/understanding english and this is the root cause of a lot of the problems. So many times, we’ve ordered, even pointing at specific items on the menu, only to receive something completely different. While Chang’s does employ more english speaking people than Tasty China did, I think there is still a language barrier that exists in the kitchen. The other big issue is the manager. The guy is one of the biggest aholes i’ve seen in a restaurant. He used to be at Tasty China, but now spends his time at Peter Changs. The only thing he does is stomps around and yells at everyone. On our last visit, we were seated at a table next to the kitchen and heard nonstop yelling from this guy throughout our meal. He’s also known to argue with and yell at customers when they complain about not getting the dish that they ordered.

If they want to try and fix this issue, I really think they should consider numbering the menu (yes, I know there are numbers next to each item, but every section of the menu resets the numbers so there are like six #1’s on the menu). I think that would be a huge help in getting past the language barrier issue.

JRC

February 11th, 2011
10:03 am

Welcome back John! Your words are wasted on cake ;-) . We had a much better experience, but we went for a late lunch on Saturday. Beers showed up quickly, the food poured out of the kitchen. We had a tough time getting bowls instead of plates, but I think that was genuine confusion. The staff couldn’t imagine why we wanted bowls.

As for the food, well, it was brilliant. I loved the lamb, but then again I love cumin. I had no idea it was such a divisive spice until I started reading reviews of this place, in which everyone posits an opinion on the lamb. The pork belly frito was fascinating, but I preferred the shredded pork belly entree. My favorite was the smoked spicy duck, crispy as duck should be, the smokiness of the meat and the chilies making out together. Brilliant.

I think the best course for now is not to avoid the restaurant, but avoid the peak hours. The food is worth it.

Lorenzo

February 11th, 2011
10:26 am

Of the hundreds of bits that have been written about Peter “Cheng,” you are apparently the first writer to have asked him about the preferred spelling of his name, since it appears as “Chang” in everything else I’ve read.

But he pronounces it the way we would pronounce “chang” in English?

BFellows

February 11th, 2011
11:02 am

He prefers “Cheng” so much he put Chang on the Door, the Menu and the Website. Moron.

RK

February 11th, 2011
11:46 am

Actually, Cheng was on the menu (hence my confusion).

The bamboo fish was a real find. Fantastic surprise to pillowy fish. Dan dan noodles, always great. Peter Rolls are another new find (I make sure to try something new every time). Really, the food I can’t complain about, but the service…aye. I don’t get it.

I’ve been mischarged 25% of the time. The language barrier between the staff is amazing. I sit at the bar, waiting for take-out, watching waiters translate what is on their slips, and looking up the prices on a menu, and then using a calculator to tally it up. Everyone, double-check your bills.

BTW, I hate the descriptions of the food. Luckily, I love the food, and I go all the time, so I’m willing to try things out…but what the heck is “Fragrant” or “Golden” or “Hongpao” supposed to taste like? Luckily the bamboo fish doesn’t remotely taste like bamboo.

On the bright side, they are doing great business…

And yes, the Christmas lights are still up.

Still should be a 3-star, as it “merits a drive if you’re into this kind of dining.”

Steve

February 11th, 2011
11:51 am

Agree with RK, this should be a 3 star. This place is definitely worth a drive. Not many options in Atlanta for great szechuan cuisine.

[...] writing today’s review of Peter Cheng Cuisine, I sat down with a restaurant manager to go over many details that confused me about the liquor [...]

Josh H

February 11th, 2011
12:28 pm

1) If you certain the restaurant will right itself soon, why not wait a month for a proper review (unless you’re planning on re-reviewing it in the next few months)?

2) I still don’t understand why the new rating system can’t assign a number of stars instead of making it seem like this restaurant got two out of five stars, which can’t help but to look like a failing grade. Get rid of the greyed-out stars the restaurant didn’t receive and you’ll have a more respectable rating system.

John Kessler

February 11th, 2011
2:33 pm

Hey — I don’t like to rush reviews and always wait at least a month before setting foot in the restaurant. But if it’s a place that people are talking about and asking me about, it’s a matter of reader service to pipe in with a critical look. Thanks for reading, jk

bobb

February 11th, 2011
2:34 pm

This review is ridiculous. This is absolutely the best CHinese restaurant in town. I have spent 3 months of my life in China, and try every new restaurant in Atlanta. I give this critic 1 star because the grade should be on the food and not so much on service from mostly new employees. Unlike in this add, I received food promptly and couldn’t stop eating. It was the best meal I have had in a few years. Also the review by Steve is a load of garbage. I have been eating regularly at Tasty CHina for years and never seen the owner (not manager) yelling. And I have never seen him argue with a customer. I did see his ex girlfriend that used to work there have attitudes though.

John Kessler

February 11th, 2011
2:52 pm

JRC – Thanks. :)

The Chief

February 11th, 2011
4:40 pm

Good review. I’m glad you liked the smoked chicken with mustard sauce and I second Steve’s recommendation of the hot & numbing beef (but the chicken was my favorite dish). Too bad I live out of town and won’t be going back– Atlanta is lucky to have such great Sichuan food.

I guess I should change the spelling in my post to Cheng now… http://lawandfood.blogspot.com/2011/01/in-hands-of-elusive-sichuan-master.html

Jason

February 11th, 2011
10:33 pm

Atlanta needs a real food critic. Kessler being so academic in his “reviews” is getting tiring.

We should all just go to the random hole-in-the-wall that will go out of business within 6 months because those are the restaurants that get 5 stars in atlanta. Also, I love driving to Kennesaw for the new “dive”.

Kirk

February 12th, 2011
8:49 am

@ Jason. What is your definition of a”real” food critic? I don’t think there are any scientific applications that can be applied to eating food. You either like it or you don’t. A food critic has a responsibility to tell people what he thinks. Where is the academia in these reviews? I haven’t heard John tell anyone that he knows and you don’t. I enjoy what other people think and adjust my eating experiences according to what I find when I go. My tongue and mouth are the final arbitrator of what I put in them.
Peace.

BuHi

February 12th, 2011
8:56 am

Here’s the deal (and it won’t make me very popular). Peter Chang (Cheng, Zhang, etc.) is NOT the best Chinese chef in Atlanta. He is a very good chef (at times), but that is true at quite a few places here. There are quite a few excellent Chinese chefs (and cooks) working in relative obscurity in Atlanta.

The problem with most really good Chinese restaurants here is they can be inconsistent – and Chang is no different – he’s just managed to parlay his name & style into a cult following. What I’ve found to be most consistent about Chang’s food is his use of chili and Sichuan peppercorns. Beyond that, his execution at both his own restaurant and at Tasty China has been hit or miss. Is it worth a visit? Absolutely. Is it worth spending 2, 3 or 4 times as much for your dinner there that at other Chinese restaurants in town? Not so sure.

Josh H

February 12th, 2011
2:21 pm

BuHi – I’d love to hear about some of your other favorite Chinese places in town. Please post them here or link your blog if you have one.

Steve

February 12th, 2011
5:38 pm

@bobb… please reread, I never mention the owner. The manager is the one i’m referring to.

RK

February 12th, 2011
7:51 pm

You can’t blame him for execution at Tasty China when he wasn’t there.

JRC

February 12th, 2011
11:43 pm

@Josh – If you dig Sichuan food, check out Gu’s Bistro. It was written up in CL a couple of weeks ago, and is worth the visit. It doesn’t reach the heights of Peter Che(a)ngs, but it is well above average and approachable. I had Cumin lamb and the Chengdu noodles. Both a bit oily, but very tasty. I would echo the review of it… the noodles are quite simple, but I can’t forget them. Chef Liu=dumpling goodness.

Then there is Chico and Changs….nothing like Mexicali Mooshu….

Ron C

February 13th, 2011
1:53 am

This is a tricky question. I liken it to: “What would The French Laundry be rated if the service got kind of random, and then they switched to an a la carte menu, keeping the same items that they currently serve but also adding mozzarella sticks and a bloomin’ onion?”

My point is that you can get extraordinary food at Peter Cheng’s if you order correctly. And I do mean “extraordinary.” As in, not ordinary. As in, unique, interesting and exciting on a national scale. And as in truly excellent and deserving way more than 2 stars. But you can also get the Chinese equivalent of mozzarella sticks and bloomin’ onions.

I don’t blame Chef Cheng (Chang) (Zhang) for the wide-ranging and unfocused menu. I believe that this is necessary, in Atlanta, if you want to operate a successful Chinese restaurant. Therefore, in my own mental review I don’t penalize him for it. And from my perspective, since I have figured this “ordering” thing out, at the moment there is not another Chinese restaurant in the Southeast at which I would rather dine.

BuHi

February 13th, 2011
8:37 am

Josh – my blog is in John’s blog roll (I’d rather JK mention it that shill it myself).

Ron C. – You “don’t blame the chef for the wide-ranging and unfocused menu”? Who do you blame? Typically, the chef is responsible for everything from planning the menu down to the quality of service – especially if their name (or some version of their name) is on the door. There are plenty of “focused” Chinese restaurants in Atlanta that do just fine (however they don’t have the high prices and level of publicity that Ch – whatever his name is – gets).

My concern is that Sichuan is becoming the ethnic version of the overblown burger concept here in Atlanta… Did you notice in the photo that Chef – let’s just call him Peter – that his toque is mashed in on the sides? Remind anyone else of a faux-hawk?

Edward

February 13th, 2011
10:52 am

I’ll pass on the hype. With all the raving about Tasty China, I braved the traffic and drove for 30 minutes just to try this amazing place. I was sorely disappointed. I’ve had better food at the food court in H Mart. And what’s with the attitude of “you must order correctly”? Excuse me? I’m paying to be served, I shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet just to find good food on the menu.

My partner is native Chinese, I have many native Chinese friends, and I’ve been to China and experienced the cuisine from my partner’s mom’s kitchen to streetside shops to grand restaurants there. There ARE good Chinese restaurants in metro Atlanta, they just don’t receive the inordinate amount of hype that many of these places, like Tasty China and whatever Mr. Cheng is operating this moment, undeservedly obtain.

SC

February 13th, 2011
8:44 pm

I agree with John’s review. I grew up and just came back from Hong Kong; went to both Michelin 3 stars Chinese restaurants there. Peter’s restaurant is so-so at best, can’t really say it’s authentic. Maybe the cooking technique (the cooks behind the wok know how to shake that thing well), but certainly not the recipes. Although I never thought there is any true authentic Chinese food in Atlanta (including Buford Hwy and around Jimmy Carter/Duluth). But if Peter’s restaurant is getting all these attention and therefore drawing the crowds; then I wish some other Chinese places up and down Buford Hwy and Duluth should get more customers. They are all hard working people preparing food that in my opinion falls in the same level as Peter’s, and I promise their front of the house service is much much better than Peter’s restaurant.

bobb

February 14th, 2011
6:59 am

It’s funny to here someone who’s exposure to Chinese food is from Hong Kong rating Sichuan food that has no similarity to the bland dishes served in Hong Kong. If you ordered typical American/Chinese menu items, instead of what they specialize in, you are not in a position to rate the cuisine. I would imagine you do like Panda Express. And for SC, I have dined at the places on Buford, and some are decent for Dim Sum, but not for true Sichuan food. Funny SC, I have been to Beijing several times, mainland China, where the cuisinewas not influenced by more than 100 years of British influence. Most people from the mainland would not call the food from Hong Kong, Chinese

Edward

February 14th, 2011
10:12 am

@bobb: I imagine you could be even more condescending and pompous, but perhaps you’ve already hit your peak, which is sad, really. Many of us are quite qualified to “rate the cuisine” as we see fit. Just because we don’t agree with you does not invalidate our opinions. Please, do enjoy your food somewhere besides where I like to dine as I would appreciate not having to push aside your ego in order to enter the restaurant.

Top Knife

February 14th, 2011
5:09 pm

Edward the angry Queen……………lol

BuHi

February 15th, 2011
4:01 pm

What’s the deal bobb? Are you saying that a “regional” cuisine is invalid or “not authentic” if it’s prepared or eaten outside of that region (and BTW, Beijing is not in Sichuan province). If so, that means the Sichuan meal I ate in Hong Kong, prepared by people from Sichuan, with Sichuan ingredients was nothing like a meal of those same recipes prepared in Chengdu (which is in Sichuan, BTW)?

“Most people from the mainland would not call the food from Hong Kong, Chinese” (sic – you need a period and not the comma). You’d have us believe that everyone in China is a gourmand and looks down their nose at anyone that doesn’t “get” their food. I got news for you – most of the people in China are no different that the grunts in the rest of the world. They work, they go home and they eat. Convenience means as much to them as to anyone else – they’re not elitist about how they eat.
Sounds like you’ve been watching too many Olive Garden commercials – everyone in Italy knows more about food than you do (which I guess would explain the growth of McDonalds, Burger King and Spizzico there).

Your food posturing/chest-thumping sounds more in keeping with a football fanatic than someone who actually likes food.

SC

February 15th, 2011
10:31 pm

wow bobb. i wonder what’s your dining credential? i’m chinese; been eating chinese food my whole life and i think i know a bit about it, whether it’s Shanghai, cantonese, or Sichuan. The good and the bad. but hey the only reason i posted the comment is because i wish Atlantan will patronize more chinese restaurants around Buford Hwy and Duluth/Pleasant Hill instead of just crowding a place that has a star chinese chef. Peter’s cooking is not bad, but u can get similar stuff somewhere else. and peter’s restaurant’s front of house set up and service?…just ask Ms. Lauterbach. She is right.