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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Food: 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