THE JOYLESS OUT-OF-LUCK CLUB
P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 949-2610. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m. P.F. Chang's China Bistro may be the hottest new dining room in town. It's so popular that management doesn't bother with reservations. Why should it, when beautiful people, celebrities and trendoids pack the place, waiting an hour or more at prime eating times for a table? The restaurant springs from the vision of Paul Fleming, who operates the Valley's first-rate Ruth's Chris steak houses and Z'Tejas Grill. Fleming had a new concept for Chinese food: Serve it Western fashion in elegant surroundings, with leisurely courses, a wine list and American desserts. You won't find family dinners for four, free pots of tea or fortune cookies here. Back to the drawing board.
The problem? Food so dull that it could induce a coma, prepared without whimsy, creativity or style. If this fare were music, it would be played in an elevator.
I got the unshakable impression that a lot more thought went into the decor than the menu. The restaurant designer wants to make patrons feel they're in a place that's as striking, hip and novel as they think they are. So over the bar is a huge mural, 26 by 9 feet, a modern copy of a scene from a 12th-century screen painting. And three huge sculptures, like those unearthed in the ancient city of Xi'an--a lion, a handmaiden and a warrior--are scattered around the otherwise sparely furnished room, perhaps to give customers the feeling of dining in an emperor's tomb. Meanwhile, huge, canvas-looking white disks suspended from the ceiling, trumpet-shaped light fixtures and a nifty spiral staircase leading to a small, second-floor alcove lend a high-tech, art-deco look. But when it all sets off bland, chop-suey parlor staples like kung pao chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, everything ends up looking pretentious and faintly silly.
The appetizer offerings win no points for either technical merit or artistic originality. Calling routine pot stickers "Peking ravioli" apparently enables the owner to charge $4.95 for a miserly four dumplings with weak hoisin sauce. Scallion pancakes are unpalatable--thick, gummy disks that should only be let out of the kitchen with a police escort. Has the cook ever tasted them? P.F. Chang's wisely offers soup by the cup and the bowl, something I wish more Chinese restaurants would do. The hot-and-sour bowl is reasonably priced and generously portioned. On the other hand, it can afford to be, because it's untouched by ingredients that give it any sort of flavor. Good hot-and-sour soup should wallop you right on the snout. This broth has all the ethnic punch of Campbell's chicken noodle. Indeed, you'd swear some of the main dishes were fashioned by Aunt Edith of Milwaukee for her church's Chinese potluck supper. The waitress steered us away from what looked like the most intriguing poultry plate, chived chicken, which promised stir-fried fowl, bean curd and cloud mushrooms. "It's very bland," she advised, promoting Chef Roy's Favorite Chicken in its place. It's scary to think just how bland the chived chicken must be, because Chef Roy's Favorite Chicken consists only of steamed broccoli ringing uninspired chunks of white-meat chicken. Simplicity can be a culinary virtue, but here it's a substitute for imagination. Beef … la Szechuan features good, quality beef, twice-cooked to a bit of crispness with shredded celery and carrots. But like almost everything we sampled, it's woefully underseasoned, all texture, no taste. And though it's starred for spiciness, I've had peanut-butter sandwiches with more bite. Chang's House Spiced Chicken brings ho-hum breaded chicken pieces. The heralded orange-peel-and-chile-pepper kick, however, was undetectable, and no sauce moistened the dry platter. Steamed eggplant is exactly as advertised: strips of sleep-inducing steamed eggplant in a so-what soy garlic sauce. And double pan-fried noodles, with bits of pork and stir-fried vegetables, while perfectly serviceable, don't do much beyond dulling hunger pangs. Only lemon scallops reached a level that inspired dueling chopsticks. That's because the kitchen got hold of gorgeous scallops, cooked them to moist perfection in a fresh, light batter and drizzled on a lemon sauce that actually had a discernible citrus tang. Despite their cutesy, vaguely exotic names, like "Mandarin Sunset," desserts take direct aim at the familiar Occidental sweet tooth. Pear Dynasty is a delightful pear almond torte. The Orient Express is a dense chocolate torte with raspberry and vanilla sauces. And Mandarin Sunset turns out to be macadamia-nut pie. They're all good, and wildly inappropriate. With cooler weather on the horizon, count on hordes of tourists and snowbirds to join the with-it crowd at P.F. Chang's Bistro. So much the better for the rest of us. Because if they're eating Chinese food here, it means they're freeing up tables at muralless, sculptureless, nonconcept Chinese joints with far superior fare.
China Village, 12005 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 953-1961. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. One of those nonconcept joints with far superior fare is China Village, a real contrast to P.F. Chang's pretension. Don't look here for valet parking, a greeter at the front door or a $90 bottle of Dom Perignon on the wine list. Nor is this place likely to be featured in any restaurant design manuals. It's spacious in a barnlike way, tables far enough apart so you don't have to participate in your neighbors' conversation. Open wooden beams in an A-frame add to the barn feel. Assorted aquariums, huge lanterns and lots of artificial plants contribute familiar Chinese-restaurant touches. China Village doesn't look like anything more than it is--a neighborhood chow mein stop with all the usual Chinese menu suspects. But these are some of the best usual suspects I've run across in the Valley. This is a place that knows to focus its energy on food. Take the pot stickers. Here you get eight big ones, crispy and doughy, with a bowl of hoisin sauce so good we made the waiter leave it on the table throughout the meal. The hot-and-sour soup is good enough to order in the middle of the monsoon season. First, the kitchen stocks the egg-rich broth with pork, shrimp, tofu, green onions, bean sprouts and pickled cabbage. Then it's not afraid to make the soup sinus-clearingly hot and lip-puckeringly sour. For several minutes after you've downed this, your sense of smell will be as acute as your dog's. The familiar main dishes explode with the flavors that P.F. Chang's versions lack. Yui-shan eggplant features skin-on, cooked-to-death eggplant mixed with minced pork, heavily seasoned with ginger and garlic, saut‚ed in a chile-spiked hot sauce. No way is Aunt Edith ever going to bring anything like this to a potluck. As a point of comparison, we ordered chicken and vegetables, as dull-sounding a dish as we could imagine, to see how it stacked up against Chef Roy's Favorite Chicken. China Village's diced chicken couldn't outclass the thick, white-meat breast hunks of its rival. But the platter had lots of snow peas, baby corn, exotic mushrooms, water chestnuts and cabbage. And the ingredients packed a well-seasoned kick, heavy with five-spice and a touch of wine. Next, we matched up twice-cooked pork against Chang's flavor-drained twice-cooked beef. China Village's meat doesn't get quite the crispy edge, but the textural shortcomings don't seem too severe once you start rolling the flavors around in your mouth. Saut‚ed with cabbage and mushrooms in a thick, aromatic, chile-tinged sauce, this dish overpowers the competition. Then, on to the noodles. The house special chow mein packs chunks of white-meat chicken, pork and big shrimp in a hearty platter of pan-fried soft noodles and shredded vegetables. While hardly the stuff of elegant Chinese banquets, this simple noodle plate satisfies the noodle cravings that drive Westerners into Chinese restaurants in the first place.
China Village whips up a mean sizzling beef platter. Generous amounts of tender, lean, thin-sliced beef mix it up with assorted vegetables on a scorchingly hot skillet, in a robust, slightly sweet sauce. Occasionally, the chef likes to stretch his talents. You don't usually encounter dairy-based Chinese fare, but scallops in cream sauce is a pleasant change of pace. Especially if you like scallops--I don't see how the restaurant earns money on this $8.50 dish. And you can get Chinatown-type fare like whole steamed fish and Peking duck that doesn't require advance notice. I'm about as likely to stay for dessert at a Chinese restaurant as I am to hang around the dentist's office for additional periodontal probing. I just stick with tea. But I had to sample China Village's alternative to P.F. Chang's rich Western sweets. Called pa-ssu apple, it's about as Chinese as strawberry shortcake. But the dish is worth the drama. The server coats sliced apples tableside with honey, sugar and sesame seeds, then flames them and dunks them into ice water to harden the caramelized glaze. It's ridiculous, but not quite as absurd as a chocolate torte. What China Village lacks in flash it makes up in substance. If you come here from P.F. Chang's, reverse procedure: Leave your fancy duds at home, and bring an appetite.
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