Chinese slick

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

Entrees were a decidedly mixed bag. Orange peel chicken featured chunks of dry, tough meat coated in potato starch. The chicken is slathered in a sauce rendered from dried orange peel, red chili pods, garlic, and scallions seared in a wok with a little sesame oil to release the flavors. The blend is then infiltrated with Kung Pao and Szechwan sauces to give these flavors a medium. But this richly flavored sauce swamps any appreciable citrus tang or spiciness, that is, unless you unwittingly bite down on one of those chili pods, an action that will send you flailing for the bar.

A much better creation is the roasted Cantonese duck--thick slices of rich, moist fowl unmarred by an abundance of fat. An accompanying plum sauce seasoned with ginger was sweet with a brisk tang.

Chef Roy's favorite chicken--bits of tender bird in oyster sauce with scallions on a bed of steamed broccoli--was rich in both flavor and textural nuances created in no small part by the brilliantly green, crisp broccoli.

Szechwan from the sea, however, should go back to the wading pool from which it crawled. Coated shrimp, scallops, and calamari served in a red chili garlic sauce were pasty, mushy, and soggy with sharply off sea flavors, the kind that turn you white with worry over the severe digestive turmoil potentially hovering on the horizon.

Inconsistency continued with the side dishes. Singapore noodles--thin "Chinese angel hair" stir-fried with julienne carrot, cabbage, and scallions seasoned with garlic--featured perfectly cooked rice noodles. But the whole mass shimmered in a swamp of sesame oil.

Poached bok choy with lightly sauteed black mushrooms was an assembly of slightly wilted leaves and rich, tender mushrooms drenched in a tar-hued, smoky oyster sauce. The interplay between the minimally prepared bok choy and lavishly sauced mushrooms, coupled with the contrasting textures of crisp and spongy, was very effective.

But cold cucumber salad descended into textural spinelessness with large planks of soft, rubbery cucumber drizzled with soy and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Fresher cucumber with a vigorous snap carved into bite-size pieces would have made all the difference.

Equally steeped in boredom is the double pan-fried noodles--semi-crisp egg noodles stir-fried with cabbage, bell pepper, celery, carrot, and chicken (other choices include beef, pork, and shrimp). The noodles were rubbery and--in a dark sauce made from chicken stock, garlic, sesame oil, and cornstarch--void of compelling flavor.

Attentive, and perhaps a little gratuitous, the service was nonetheless efficient. But a little more explanation and knowledge of the menu would have been appreciated, an admittedly difficult task given the crowds these folks must contend with.

Executive Chef Steven Yahwak says the menus in each of the company's restaurants are under corporate creative direction. But he adds he will have free rein to develop specialty menu inserts and daily specials over the next few weeks, just as chefs do at the other P.F. Chang's locations.

This Dallas palace of Chinese fare won't dazzle your taste buds--at least not across the board. But the energy and ambiance take you in, at least for a little while. And after the dazzle fades, there's always take-out.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro. 18323 North Dallas Parkway, (972) 818-3336. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$

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