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RESTAURANTS

Decor Packs More Punch Than the Food

August 04, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro is alluring. It has taken over a prime Fashion Island location once home to Michael Kang's Five Feet Too, right next door to the wildly popular Cheesecake Factory, and remodeled it spectacularly. As the friendly hostesses lead you into the main seating area, you can't help but be drawn by the restaurant's centerpiece, an enormously colorful overhead mural depicting 12th-Century Chinese life. The menu will tell you it's a full 40 feet across. The menu also explains that the two impressive sculptures standing guard over the attractively curved bar are interpretations of terra-cotta statuary unearthed in the legendary city of Xi'an.

The walls are a soft beige, the floors handsomely inlaid with hardwood. The exposed ceiling ducts may clash a bit with the neoclassical decor, but they do add a casual note, and the huge, south-facing panoramic windows extend the restaurant's space magically. Lighting comes from several giant, off-white canvas disks suspended overhead, looking like gravity-defying trampolines.

You sit at free-standing tables on comfortable leather-backed chairs. The handsomely upholstered banquettes, clustered in a partially separated room just behind the front podium, have luxurious leather cushions. A lot of people like to dine at the bar, where the entire menu is available. (This is an especially good idea at peak hours--P.F. Chang's has a no-reservation policy, and waits can be long.)

In short, this is a knockout room, and the restaurant's concept is a sound one: the glories of Chinese cooking combined with the service and amenities of the best Western restaurants. To that end, owner Paul Fleming (who also has the original P.F. Chang's in Scottsdale, Ariz.,) employed the services of Philip Chiang of Beverly Hills as menu consultant.

Chiang's mother, Cecilia, owned the Mandarin restaurants in both San Francisco and Beverly Hills, two places where I ate several memorable meals. He also operated a small, high-quality Chinese bistro in West Hollywood called the Mandarette, so there is no doubt in my mind that his knowledge of this cuisine is extensive.

Unfortunately, at this restaurant Chiang and Fleming have taken a safe road to nowhere, offering mostly bland, sanitized dishes from all over the Chinese map. The lack of passion and focus in the menu is problematic enough, but the real problem is in the kitchen: Even simple dishes are erratically cooked and only sometimes pleasing.

I'm not saying everything is bland. Our crispy chicken salad was overwhelmed with hot Chinese mustard. (The waitress did warn us the dish was mustardy, but no one imagined it would be like eating straight out of a mustard jar.) Furthermore, a few of these dishes are saltier than potato chips.

Paul's catfish is one of the chief culprits in the salt category. It is fried catfish fillets in a black bean sauce; a fine idea, except that there is far too much bean sauce, a super-salty condiment made from fermented soy. Another is something they call Malaysian chicken, which you doctor with condiments like raisins, coconut, peanuts and plum sauce from little side dishes. It looks appealing, but the main component is chopped chicken and onions in an unctuous, and terribly oversalted, yellow curry sauce.

Appetizers are probably what this restaurant does best, though most are rather pricey for what you get. Peking ravioli--known as pot stickers at your local mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant--enclose a delicious pork and vegetable filling in crisp noodle dough. But at your local Chinese restaurant, you'd get six for $4.95, not four, and they probably wouldn't be this small.

Northern-style spare ribs is another dish you'll want more of. They're dry-style marinated ribs served with a tempting spiced salt dip normally found only in the most Chinese of circumstances, a tender and tangy dish. Scallion pancake, however, is an insipid, doughy disk that looks and tastes like a wheat flour version of a Salvadoran pupusa. You can't taste the scallions, and there are none of the flaky layers the pancake should have.

Most main dishes depend on vegetables, chicken or shrimp, with pork, scallops and beef making occasional forays into the woks. Chived chicken--thinly sliced chicken sauteed with bean curd, yellow chives and cloud mushrooms--is one of the lighter and better choices.

Don't expect squid or lamb, but you will see duck. Cantonese duck, says the menu, is "slow-roasted with Chiang's secret ingredients." The reality is a plate of boned, finely chopped duck with the minimum of fat and skin, squeaky clean and amazingly flavorless.

Similarly, spicy ground pork with eggplant (you can substitute ground chicken for the pork) has been cleaned up considerably for our palates. The skin has been removed from the eggplant, and the kitchen is excessively squeamish about using red pepper, an essential part of this Northern Chinese dish.

Service is performed by a young, enthusiastic team, whose table-side manner verges on the pedantic. On all three of my meals at this restaurant, the waiters explained the dishes as if my guests were eating in a real Chinese restaurant for the first time, telling us which condiments to put on which dishes and so forth.

I wouldn't object to this approach if the kitchen were really offering something new or radically interesting. Perhaps there's still a chance that will happen. When that times comes, I'll be the first in line for a table.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro is high-end moderate. Appetizers are 95 cents to $5.95. Main dishes are $5.95 to $12.95.

* P.F. CHANG'S CHINA BISTRO

* 1145 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach.

* (714) 759-9007.

* Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. Sunday.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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