On the Chang Gang

At times, trendiness can be its own reward. That certainly seems to be the case at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the sort of Chinese, sort of bistro, sort of Architectural Digest-style wonderland restaurant that opened up for business a little more than a month ago cater-cornered to River Oaks Burger Joint in Highland Village. Prior to serving their first meal, the managers of P.F. Chang's -- the Houston outpost of a chain that began in Scottsdale, Arizona, and has since spread to California; New Orleans is apparently next -- papered the city's nightclubs with the news of their imminent arrival. Getting the word out to partiers rather than gourmands might suggest that atmosphere is more important than food, and while the food has things to recommend about it, the truly fascinating thing about P.F. Chang's is the atmosphere.

On almost any night the restaurant is packed with revelers -- there's really no other word for them -- awaiting a table. Trend one: P.F. Chang's doesn't take reservations, which means a wait of an hour or two at peak time is not at all unusual. Asked whether people ever get upset by the wait, a server admitted that, yes, occasionally 120 minutes of heel cooling does cause some irritation, but that by the time the offended parties eat "they forget about it, because they have such a great time." Has P.F. Chang's ever considered reservations? No, the server cheerily replied, because so many people want to eat there, not all of them could get reservations. And that would disappoint the ones who were turned down.

Don't try to argue that no more people can eat without reservations than with (a full table is a full table); that's not the logic at work here. The logic is trend two: If you don't have to wait for it, it's not worth having. This trend has a correlative: If others aren't waiting impatiently for what you have, it's also not worth having. After all, what's the point of being beautiful and eating in style if nobody has their nose pressed up against the glass, wishing they were you?

Of course, you can avoid the wait by knowing about trend three: the table in the kitchen. The hot spot in California dining right now is the table next to where the chef is working. A few Houston restaurants have started to pick up on the idea, and P.F. Chang's is helping lead the pack. The table -- or tables, actually, two that seat eight each -- is tucked away behind the bar and in front of the food prepartion area. These Chef's Tables can be reserved, though they're much sought after and require booking many weeks in advance -- or so I was told, though one evening I cut short my wait by noticing the tables were empty and asking an accommodating hostess if I could leapfrog the crowd by sitting there. The supposed advantage of the table in the kitchen is that, in addition to seeing and feeling the hustle and bustle of the cooking in full swing, you can have private discussions with the executive chef. And all of that is true at P.F. Chang's, except that here the private discussions are more like shouting matches as you strive to make yourself heard.

Of course, it's no different anywhere else in the place. P.F. Chang's is not your typical small, friendly and intimate bistro. Despite an impressively imaginative interior design, which combines ancient Chinese statuary, hardwood flooring, rough limestone walls and carved limestone pillars with Oriental motifs, the totally open plan in which everything is visible makes it seem large and overbearing. The convivial crowds tend to be young, very hip, very loud and always in a party mood. Because the bar is such a draw (a bar in a Chinese restaurant? Don't ask), because the place seats 220 plus, because there are probably another 100 or so waiting at all times and because the ceiling is very high, the decibel level rises to where it is impossible to speak without shouting.

Despite all this, I have to admit that the server was right: By the time I left P.F. Chang's, little of this mattered. I did have a good time. Granted, if it's authentic regional Chinese cuisine that tempts your palate, there are plenty of places on Bellaire that do a whole lot better job. And granted, in the time you wait for your table at P.F. Chang's you could probably drive to Bellaire Boulevard, order, eat and be home. And further granted, it's peculiar to eat in a place that so boldly proclaims itself Chinese and see no Asian waiters, only one or two Asian faces in a sea of hundreds of patrons and only a single Asian face -- not Chinese, as it happens -- among the cookstaff. There aren't many chopsticks flying in P.F. Chang's.

Still, there is a Chinese heritage to the menu, which was created in part by Phillip Chang of Mandarin restaurant fame in Los Angeles and San Francisco; Paul Fleming (the P.F.), a New Orleans transplant with experience gained at a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, took Chang's food suggestions, surrounded them with some American glitz, and a hybrid was born.

Sometimes it works; other times it doesn't. As far as appetizers are concerned, there is nothing particularly inspiring about the harvest spring rolls; the only difference between these and regular egg rolls is the thin pancake-like covering that envelops some finely sliced vegetables. Neatly folded into small rounded pockets, they're lightly fried to a golden brown and served with a tart sweet and sour dipping sauce. Another offering is four small crescent-shaped vegetarian dumplings in a bamboo steamer. Unfortunately I, too, was steamed when I got my order, because the dumplings weren't cooked. The dough was barely more than warm, although the filling of julienne Chinese vegetables did seem done.

There are, however, two noteworthy appetizers. The Cantonese pork medallions appear on the plate in a crescent shape and boasting a resplendent red color reminiscent of Peking duck. Served with a dark hoisin sauce, the pork has no fat anywhere on it, yet remains moist. Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wrap is even more pleasing; it comes close to being the best thing the restaurant has to offer. It begins with a ceremonial tableside preparation of a special sauce -- a mixture of hot Chinese mustard, chili oil, rice vinegar and pot sticker sauce that makes the dish particularly assertive. The server is a great help in demonstrating the correct way to assemble the appetizer. A large leaf of iceberg lettuce is laid on your plate, followed by scoops of a minced chicken, vegetable and rice noodle mix. This is topped off with a teaspoon of the sauce. The whole thing is then rolled together in preparation for consumption. This is not an easy dish to eat, particularly since after the first bite everything tends to fall apart, but it's more than worth the trouble. The lettuce wrap (something a Chinese friend tells me he's seen at home, but never in a restaurant) is truly revelatory.

The entrees are similarly mixed. Much of the menu is no worse, if also no better, than many other mid-priced Chinese places. The dandan noodles -- a bowl of egg noodles topped with a sauce of ground chicken breast, garlic and chili -- are fine and filling, while the mu shu pork, with its standard thin pancake filled with a mixture of minced pork then Chinese mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and chives, was pleasantly done. The vegetables were crisp, although the mushrooms were somewhat rubbery. This isn't a highly flavored dish, but one to be enjoyed because of its delicacy.

The kung pao chicken started out strongly, its medallions of chicken so tender they fell in two under the pressure of a lone chopstick. The spicy chili peppers gave the dish a nice heat level, though the clear sauce in which they are served was so greasy that I found them impossible to pick up with chopsticks. But my first taste lead me to believe that something was awry in the kitchen; the burst of salt almost burnt my tongue. This heavy-handedness with the salt shaker was repeated in the chicken with black bean sauce, in which stir-fried chunks of white chicken are juxtaposed with a dark black bean sauce. I'm not sensitive to salt, but both these dishes were hard to take. Asked if the salt level was unusual, the waitress kindly informed me that all Chinese food tends to be salty.

Thanks for the tip. Wonder if the cooks along Bellaire know about that? But maybe, if the message I received in my fortune cookie is prophetic, it doesn't matter. It read: "You will enjoy much success." For P.F. Chang's, that seems a pretty good bet.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 4094 Westheimer, 627-7220.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro:
harvest spring rolls, $3.95; Cantonese pork medallions, $4.95; vegetarian dumplings, $4.95; Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wrap, $5.75; kung pao chicken, $9.95; chicken with black bean sauce, $10.50; mu shu pork, $7.95.

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