With lines of people queued up between the two huge horse sculptures facing Route 1, P.F. Chang’s, the new venue at MarketFair, is obviously the hottest ticket in town.
So what’s this “China bistro,” as Chang’s describes itself, all about? First off it’s more bistro than Chinese. Those horses — replicas of the kiln-fired terra-cotta figures guarding the mausoleum of the first emperor of all China (and including an army of 7,000 life-size soldiers, chariots, and horses) — guard the entrance to an equally impressive interior. Inside replicas of two warriors from that terra cotta army flank the large dining room, and sweeping marble bar.
That’s right, bar, with hundreds of exotic cocktails, wines, and beers, including a draft beer from China that tastes more like ginger ale than beer but that definitely will set the breathalyzer off if you have one too many. Even with its takeout menu, P.F. Chang’s is to the old-fashioned Chinese restaurant as TGI Friday’s is to the corner tavern.
It’s a concept restaurant, one of more than 130 now in place in upscale locations across the country, founded in 1993 by Paul Fleming (that’s the P.F.) and Phillip Chiang (Chang’s obviously). Fleming is never short of concepts. He was a mover and shaker in the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Following on P.F. Chang’s success he has a “fast casual” Chinese concept, Pei Wei, with nearly 100 restaurants now open. And he is rolling out another concept, Taneko Tavern, which will feature Japanese food in a Chang’s-like ambience.
As at any good concept restaurant, the staff at P.F. Chang’s mixes a little show business with the food business. A U.S. 1 contingent at the new MarketFair venue was greeted by a cheerful waitress, who offered a mini-course on the uses of the six oils and sauces pre-set on the table. The white vinegar can tone down a dish you think is too spicy. The chili oil can spice up any dish you like. And then she proceeds to add a tiny spoonful of hot mustard and an equally tiny spoonful of chili paste to the potsticker sauce to create “our own special recipe.” There, right before your eyes, P.F. Chang’s secret sauce is created.
Secret sauces notwithstanding, Chang’s Asian fusion menu is based on standard Chinese fare. Appetizers include Peking dumplings filled with pork or vegetables ($5.50), crab wontons filled with spicy plum sauce ($6.95), and seared ahi tuna rolled in Chinese spices ($7.95). On our recent visit the Cantonese roasted duck was served with steamed wheat buns, cucumbers, scallions, and plum and hoisin sauces ($14.95). Other entrees include what the menu calls “Traditions,” like beef with broccoli ($7.95 at lunch; $10.95 at dinner), sweet and sour chicken ($9.95); and mu shu pork ($10.25).
Some of the more unusual items include wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon salad ($8.95), wok-seared lamb marinated with scallions and sesame and served with cilantro over shredded lettuce ($12.95), shrimp with candied walnuts tossed in a creamy lemon sauce with honeydew melon ($13.95), and double pan-fried noodles (semi-crisp egg noodles stir-fried with vegetables and served with a choice of beef, pork, chicken, or shrimp ($9.25). There are eight vegetarian entrees and sides, ranging from Sichuan-style asparagus or green beans ($5.95) to vegetarian ma po tofu ($7.95).
About those lines. The staff at P.F. Chang’s notes that long waits (would you believe three hours?) are common on weekend nights and that reservations should be made weeks, not days, in advance. Delays can even slow down people looking for a quick business lunch. The dining room opens at 11 a.m., and all tables are sometimes taken by 11:15. By 2 p.m. or so the crush is over. But you can wait at the bar (or take your drink to the outside seating area). Or you can eat at the bar.
The best bet is an old-fashioned concept: Call ahead.
P.F. Chang’s, Market Fair, 3545 Route 1, Princeton. 609-799-5163.