Sunday, March 28, 2010

Restaurant Review: Peter Chang back at Tasty China (for now at least!)

The foodie world has been abuzz this week - the elusive chef Peter Chang has turned up in Atlanta! That name might not mean much to most, but he's a hard-to-track-down cult foodie hero, a cross-between Mick Jagger and the loch ness monster. For those who lust after his food, he's a god, and for many he's so hard to find, he seems almost made up.

Recent New Yorker and Oxford American articles go into great depth explaining the fervor with which fans track him as he bounces from restaurant to restaurant. Chang is the kind of guy people drive across state lines for. The restaurants he cooks at are usually decidedly lacking in charm - think typical Chinese restaurant tucked into an unassuming strip center, and they are rarely in hot beds of Szechuan fervor - Fairfax, Alexandria, Knoxville, Marietta. But his cooking converts diners into fanatics, so when he pops up in a town, the blogosphere blows up.

Hot & Numbing Beef Rolls
I first heard about Chang's return (he was at Tasty China in Marietta previously) from Omnivore by way of Atlanta Cuisine. Chang is a "blink and you'll miss" him kind of guy, often gone from a restaurant as soon as it gets big buzz, so Mr. AT and I knew we had to drag ourselves OTP pronto. And man oh man am I glad we did!

Tasty China's decor is exactly what you might expect from an old suburban strip mall in a part of Marietta that's seen better days, but style is not what you're looking for there. Fortunately the service is attentive and friendly. I'd often heard of wait staff trying to warn Americans off of the best dishes for fear our lily white palates can't handle it, but our server didn't bat an eye lash when we began ordering dish after dish that we'd read about in the articles about Chang. Mr. AT and I ate there a while back, and the menu is now notably more exciting, bearing much more of Chang's imprint.

Fish Coriander Rolls

We started with Hot and Numbing Beef Rolls and Fish Coriander Rolls. I must say, I'd normally avoid something described as "hot and numbing" but if so many Changians love it, then it can't be bad, right? Right! The beef rolls were indeed spicy and had a lip numbing effect, but it turns out that's not actually an unpleasant sensation. The numbing balances out the heat, and it was not at all too hot for me, and I'm the kind of gal who can barely eat medium hot wings. The rolls, wraps filled with lettuce and slivers of beef, were actually substantially larger than expected. The fish coriander rolls were perfectly crisp little cigars filled with a mild mix of coriander and white fish and lacked the grease of your typical Chinese food fried rolls.

The Roasted Fish with Green Onion and Pepper appeared in every article I read about Chang, so it was a must try. Served in a bamboo basket and dusted with cumin, it was packed with flavor in a way I rarely find in roasted fish. Cumin is a flavor I've never experienced in Chinese food, but it appears to be a Chang hallmark. I was only sorry I didn't have more room for it.

Roasted Fish with Green Onion and Pepper

But for me the pinnacle of my Chang experience was Dry-Fried Eggplant with Hot and Numbing Pepper. Like the fish, the eggplant seemed to be cumin dusted, and were like the most wonderful eggplant fries you could ever imagine. Just enough spice, firm exterior, and melt in your mouth eggplanty goodness inside. I could not stop eating these, and in fact kept eating them long after I was full.

When we arrived, we weren't sure if the breathless news of Chang's return was true. Nowhere to be found was his awards wall that adorns each of his restaurants. But then a nearby table started asking the waiter questions about Chang, and next thing you know, there he was coming by to say hello to them. All I could think to do was grin like an idiot, and wave, yes wave, to him. But still he didn't come over.

Dry-Fried Eggplant with Hot and Numbing Pepper

It was only 20 minutes later when I again flashed him a goofy grin that he came over with a server as translator. After a brief chat during which we profusely complimented the food, we showed him that we had the New Yorker article with us. At that, he ran back to another table and brought back the Oxford American issue that included the article about him. It was autographed and offered as a gift to us. How cool is that? From everything I'd read, I imagined Chang as a bit reclusive, but he seem to bask in the glow of our praise. In fact, he agreed to take a photo with us, complete with his chef hat, and then had what I assumed to be his wife take a photo of us all with his own camera. I love this guy!

Yep, that's Mr. AT and me with Chef Peter Chang

Best of all, I got some scoop out of Chang. When we said we were thrilled to have him in Atlanta, he replied that he's just here helping out a friend, and we were lucky we caught him here. He informed us that he lives in Richmond, VA, and suggested we should come see him there. Different than what I'd read elsewhere and unfortunate for Atlanta foodies! There is a silver lining, though. He said he'd be back in a year or so, so perhaps that aligns with Atlanta Cuisine's report that he's working on opening a restaurant somewhere OTP.

All very exciting for a food dork like me! Flavorful, exciting food like nothing I'd ever tasted before and a little QT with the man, the myth, the legend. Immediate tweeting resulted in me even getting a retweet from the likes of Kate Krader from Food & Wine and Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appetit, the former of whom appears to be dining in Atlanta tonight. Clearly some big hitters are Changians, too, and a little publicity for Adventurous Tastes is always cool in my book!

At least for me, the hype is well worth it, and there's something exciting about chasing a talented and mysterious chef. Sounds like Chang might be heading to Richmond before you know it, so if you want to try out his Szechuan stylings for yourself, you better go fast!

*Note we realize that since Chang was in the dining room he was not in fact in the kitchen during our meal preparation, but whatevs, we ate some Chang classic dishes and he was there, so close enough, right?*

Tasty China
585 Franklin Road
Marietta, GA 30067
(770) 419-9849

Tasty China on Urbanspoon



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