Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Waiting for Chang

I ate at P. F. Chang's China Bistro in Nashville on a recent business trip. I probably wouldn't even bother to write about it except that the friends I was eating with gave it a huge build up, raving about how good it was for two solid days before we ate there--and raved about it during and after the meal, too.

P.F. Chang's website has a page entitled "Concept" which explains that "the P.F. Chang experience" is "a unique combination of Chinese cuisine, attentive service, wine, and tempting desserts all served in a stylish, high-energy bistro." It's a bit surprising I've managed to avoid getting dragged into one before, since there are 134 of them across the country. (No, there's not one in Charleston yet--the closest is up in Greenville, SC.)

For the record, there is nothing outright bad about P. F. Chang's. The food was pretty good. I had the Chengdu Spiced Lamb, keeping with my recent lamb addiction. The service was (as promised) attentive, and the room had the nice dark wood and brass feel that is standard for most upscale restaurants ("bistros") these days. It was a decent dinner, and we had great conversation and all in all an enjoyable night out.

And I won't mind one way or another if I never go there again.

The food at P. F. Chang's is, at best, "Chinese-inspired," as it has very little to do with real Chinese cooking. But this isn't very surprising. Even after a twenty year renaissance of world cuisine in the United States--when you can get everything from Thai noodles to falafel at Middle America mall food courts--it is exceptionally difficult in the U.S. to find authentic Chinese cooking. Even in San Francisco and Washington DC's Chinatown's you have to look hard to find food like what is actually served in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Even so, something about the fusion seems a little silly. For example, the "Chicken Lettuce Wraps" appetizer, which everyone who's ever been to P. F. Chang's seems to adore, consists of finely-minced chicken mixed with onions, water chestnuts, and Asianesque spices rolled up in, for some reason, a leaf of iceberg lettuce. East meets West.

A big piece of the P. F. Chang concept is "creating custom sauces tableside," which is an old piece of restaurant chicanery that dates back at least to the Caesar salad if not before. In Chang's case, it involves coming to the table with a little rack containing cups of soy sauce, peppers, spices, and sesame oil which the waitress mixes right there in front of you (with some self-conscious patter to make sure you notice she is fresh-mixing your sauce for you.)

The sauce wasn't bad--a spicy soy and ginger kind of thing--but it would have been just as good if it had been mixed up by a prep guy in the kitchen days before. It's a little thing, but it's an example of the kind of fakery that adds nothing to the meal but goes to convince the rubes that they are getting something "upscale".

The real annoyance, though, was that we had to wait for a table. And not just wait, but wait in a crowded bar where we were constantly jostled by fellow patrons for a good forty-five minutes (maybe that's the "high energy" part of the concept) and had to hang onto one of those irritating restaurant pagers so we could be summoned when our table was ready. And this was on a totally uneventful Tuesday night.

I have recently identified the hallmark of all the restaurants I can't stand: you have to wait a long, long time for a table.

Waiting for a table seems to have a magical effect on many diners. In part, perhaps, once you've waited an hour smelling freshly cooked food and getting hungrier by the minute and downing one or two cocktails, you're probably more likely to find whatever meal you are eventually served to be far tastier than if you'd just walked in off the street a few minutes before. And, of course, there's the psychological effect of seeing a crowd of people jamming into a restaurant: if all these other people are waiting, it must be good food.

Waiting just makes me cranky, and makes me despise all the other people around me for being so gullible that they would fall for the same trickery that I figure I've fallen for, too.

If I were at a temple of gastronomy, where renowned chefs served up fresh, original dishes that differed every night and you would get a dinner that wowed you and made your taste buds soar, then maybe I could be persuaded that it was worth waiting almost an hour in a line to sample what was an unmatched culinary experience unavailable anywhere else.

But why wait for an eternity to have ordinary line-cooked dishes served up in an automated fashion--the same dishes you can get at literally 134 different places? Surely there's a nice, creative, local bistro just down the street where the chef will surprise you with something you can't get just anywhere and--best of all--you don't have to wait crammed in a loud bar with fifty other suckers waiting for the tableside show?

Okay, so it's not really fair to blame all this on P. F. Chang's. But the "concept" didn't win me over and I'm tired of hearing my friends rave about how great a place it is.

Until further notice I'll be having my meals out at Jack's Cosmic Dogs.


Paul said...

I had never heard of P.G.Chang's place. Try D. B.'s on Folly Road - great Philly cheese steak !

Peter said...

I had the same experience at Don Pablo's. Big crowd, long wait, same food I could have had at a small strip mall joint for 1/3 the price. I think there's a reason we haven't had a nationwide Chinese chain before - too many local stores make better food. You shouldn't pay $$$ just for the experience.

Robert said...

Thanks, Paul. I'll definitely have to give D.B.'s a try.

Peter: I think you're onto something with your "local stores make it better" theory. For a long time barbecue chains struggled to establish a national foothold. It's only been in the past decade that chains like Famous Dave's and Smokey Bones have been able to sustain large growth. Chinese food seems to be holding out even better.

Anonymous said...

It made me poop when I ate there...

Anonymous said...

With the exception of one visit to PF Chang's in Charlotte, my visits to Chang's in multiple cities have been good.

But if you're upstate (Greenville) and want truly outstanding Chinese food provided in a classy but very comfortable atmosphere, try Lieu's Chinese on Woodruff Rd. The restaurant is just off the last exit travelling north on I-385 before the I-85 junction.

There's a new Chang's in Greenville, too, but Lieu's food, service, and atmosphere are far superior -- eat there instead.

As Peter and Robert blogged earlier, local restaurants make it better.

Regarding DB's Cheesesteak on Folly Road, James Island: yes, it serves fabulous cheese steaks and fresh, never frozen burgers that have replaced Five Guys Burgers at the top of my recommended list.

The fries are outstanding there, too!

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