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.

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