Chinese slick

P.F. Chang's polishes Chinese fare with an American bistro veneer

The first thing that will strike you about P.F. Chang's China Bistro is the interior. Unlike most Chinese restaurants, with standard-issue food service furnishings and dim lighting, this one is bright, crisply contemporary, and bristling with energy.

There's even an open kitchen with a demonstration cooking wok in full view of the bar--unheard of in a Chinese restaurant. Two captain's tables that seat up to 18 are sandwiched between the bar and kitchen.

The second thing you'll notice is that the menu has been briskly edited. Instead of endless variations on beef, chicken, pork, and seafood dishes, you'll find a focused menu with about 50 items. Yet, after a few bites, it turns out to be little better than adequate Chinese take-out fare--sans the white cardboard cartons--parked in polished digs. Still, this shrewd combination is drawing North Dallas' well-primped, tailored, bleached, and tanned in hordes normally associated with the latest Dallas see-and-be-seen feeding/imbibing gallery, which is apparently what this haunt has become.

P.F. Chang's, off the Dallas North Tollway, is among the newest links in a small Phoenix-based restaurant chain with units in Southern California, Houston, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Florida, Washington D.C., Denver, and Charlotte. Another link is set to open in NorthPark Center sometime this summer.

Developed by Paul Fleming of Fleming Restaurants Inc., a firm that operates Ruth's Chris and Z Tejas Grill franchises, the P.F. Chang's concept was solidified with the expertise of Philip Chiang of the successful Mandarin Restaurant in Beverly Hills. Together, they seek to combine traditional Chinese cuisine with American-style service in upscale bistro digs.

And those digs are fairly engaging, even if there is a toe too deeply sunk in restaurant theme gook. Signature decor includes two 11-foot stone Ming horses near the entrance, life-size statues of warriors, steel bonsai trees in the back bar area, and a huge mural depicting a scene from 12th-century China above the bar.

These touches adorn a crisp setting with hardwood floors, stone and slate walls, matte-finish wood plank tables, and booth seating covered in red and gold patterned fabric, all assembled in an arc-shaped dining area and a semi-circular bar. Softly lit disk-shaped screens serve as chandeliers, while ceiling beams and ventilation tubes fan out above like spokes.

Divided into sections including meats, chicken, seafood, noodles and rice, and vegetarian plates, the menu borrows elements from all of the major regions of China including Canton, Szechuan, Shanghai, Hunan, and Mongolia--which makes P.F. Chang's boasts about its wine list so perplexing. It's almost as if it were inadvertently mixed up with that of another, completely unrelated restaurant. This peculiar selection is heavily populated with Chardonnays, Merlots, and Cabernets, a near complete mismatch for a menu better served by a diverse selection of Rieslings, GewYrztraminers, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blancs, Chenin Blancs, and Beaujolais (the list has just one GewYrztraminer and one Riesling). Asian foods crush most red wines like Merlots and Cabernets. As for Chardonnays, while there is a possibility for harmony, they more often than not flatten out next to many Asian spices.

On the plus side, the list is roughly organized by flavor profile, and each selection is available by the glass.

The food here isn't as dramatically out of kilter as the wine list, but it has quite a few potholes to clutter its stretches of smooth cruising. Perhaps the best item on the menu--in terms of the sheer pleasure it delivers--is the salt-and-pepper shrimp appetizer. These deep-fried beasts come with heads, tails, and standard crustacean armor intact. The shell is coated with a light batter that creates a thin layer of textural silk to add lively contrast to the crunchy exoskeleton. Plus, there's not a trace of oil or excess grease.

Tossed with scallions, the shrimp come with a ramekin of dry kosher salt and coarse black pepper for dipping. This immensely satisfying starter has a tasty, sea-washed flavor and a range of textures that transcend its deep-fried preparation.

Available steamed or pan-fried, Peking raviolis--crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground pork and vegetables--were equally satisfying. The texture was firm, and they maintained their savory virility right through to the last bite. But the traditional spare rib appetizer--bones holding relatively lean, chewy meat--was slathered in a viscous, cloying sweet sauce that blanketed the palate like varnish.

Hot sour soup, a thick blend of chicken, bean curd, white pepper, and vinegar, picked up on this strain of fluid clumsiness. Far too viscous, this almost gelatinous pottage was riddled with mumbled flavors and had none of the sharply drawn assertiveness that makes this dish so compelling. While heat and tang were detectable, there was no balanced, provocative interplay between the two.

Other items proved more seductive. Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wrap was as refreshing as it was satisfying. Wet, clam shell-shaped iceberg lettuce leaves are served inverted on a plate next to a blend of chunked chicken, reconstituted shitake mushrooms, and water chestnuts in a rich, soy-based dark sauce. The ingredients are tossed into a wok with the sauce and garlic and then quickly cooked. When wrapped in the lettuce leaves, the blend comes alive with sweet, smoky sauce flavors--the tender, chewy chicken mingling with the fresh, bright crispness of the lettuce leaves.

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