Bursting onto the American food scene in 2005 at a series of Chinese restaurants, first in Virginia then in other states, chef Peter Chang developed a devoted following. Food critics and civilian fans were lured by his exquisite take on Sichuan cuisine, one buoyed by French and Indian culinary influences. But it wasn’t just his food that became the stuff of legend. Chang himself was an enigma.
Almost as soon as a restaurant he cooked at became famous, he would disappear from it. A few months later, his fans, “Changians” who crowdsourced his movements online, would find him working at some obscure restaurant, often in a strip mall. These restaurants had generic designs and even more generic names like China Star, China Gourmet and TemptAsian. The New Yorker chronicled his disappearances in a 2010 story. There was talk of a movie based on his culinary wandering. He was, his fans believed, a true rarity in any era but particularly so in the internet age: a chef who decried fame. A Johnny Appleseed of Chinese cooking whose only goal was to spread the gospel of incredible cuisine through the Chinese buffet and Asian fusion strip mall wilds of the New World, thus shattering the dominance of Americanized dishes like General Tso’s chicken and watered-down wonton soup.
Or so it seemed.
As with so many folktales, the truth was more nuanced. Born in a small Chinese village in 1963, Chang gained acclaim for his cooking in his home country before moving to Washington, D.C., in 2000 to be chef of the Chinese embassy. Two years later he left the embassy and his immigration status became uncertain. This was the cause of his frequent disappearances, say those associated with his new Connecticut restaurant. But at the start of this decade, with his immigration status on more solid footing, Chang stopped running and opened a small chain of restaurants in his name. Today he has 10 restaurants in Virginia and Maryland.
Four years ago, Chang caught the attention of New Canaan businessman Bill Xia. A native of China whose company makes diamond blades for construction, Xia was long disappointed by Connecticut’s Chinese food options. Craving something more, he called Chang and asked him to open a restaurant with him in Connecticut. Chang resisted this offer from a stranger, but Xia persisted. “For the last four years I constantly visited D.C. and made friends,” Xia says.
After the two became friends Chang relented, and with Xia’s help, opened his first Northeast restaurant in Stamford in the fall. After two visits here (the first incognito, the second through an invitation to talk with Xia and try more dishes), I can happily report that the food lives up to the myth.
Located in a storefront at the Stamford Town Center mall, from the outside, Peter Chang’s in Stamford looks like it could be a P.F. Chang’s, the place that — no matter how slowly and clearly you pronounce “Peter” — everyone will still think you’re talking about when you tell them you’re coming here. Do not trust your eyes. A soulless corporate chain this is most assuredly not.
Inside, kitchen staff consisting of more than a half-dozen chefs, most of whom are longtime veterans of Chang’s Virginia or Maryland restaurants, prepare Chang’s recipes with exactness and skill. The scallion bubble pancake ($4) looks like an inflated balloon and tastes like nothing I’ve had before. The Peking duck (half $30, whole $58) is tender and worth a visit to the restaurant all on its own. The dried fried eggplant ($10), a famous Chang dish with eggplant slices that look like french fries and tastes like perfection, and the dragon eggplant ($16) are two different but equally effective vegetable dishes. The parade of showstopping dishes goes on — Szechuan double-cooked pork belly ($17), Xian-style lam youpo noodle ($12) — and on — steamed pork dumplings ($7) and the popular Chinese dish mapo tofu ($14).
“A lot of people when they come in here say now they don’t have to travel to Chinatown,” says Daniel Chiang, general manager of the Stamford restaurant.
Chiang, a native of Connecticut who worked at one of Chang’s restaurant in Maryland before moving back here to open the Stamford eatery, says that Chang has visited the restaurant several times and many of the dishes are taken straight from Chang’s flagship, Q in Bethesda, Maryland. (Chang declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Each dish I sample is a wonderland of spice and sweetness. As New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells declared after visiting several of Chang’s restaurants: “I could make a strong case that the best Peter Chang restaurant is the nearest one, as long as you order so many things that the server starts to act as if you might be insane. And then eat until you think you can’t hold any more.”