I feel as though this week’s restaurant review should come with a disclaimer or even a warning. I’ve never “reviewed” a chain before, let alone an American one. The reasons behind that are pretty self explanatory. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the media opening and tasting to P.F. Chang’s who saw their first Montreal location with another one slated for June in Laval. I looked around and realized that not only was I the only Asian person in media row, but other than Philip Chiang himself, probably the only other Chinese person on the whole property.
I joked about with my table mate Jennifer Nachschen (of Urban Expressions) and she was convinced that it was purely a coincidence. Welcoming guests prior to a the grand opening saw shaky table service and over sighted details, but that wasn’t an issue for me. When you’re a chain restaurant, the kitchen formula is standardized and then the red ribbon is cut, then you hit the floor running and this was what I was looking out for. The food and pageantry of media night subscribed to a certain level of execution, which was a given; but I’m not here to write a review about the free food and bottomless drinks I was served.
I made an effort to come back; outside the peripheral prying eyes of the corporate bigwigs in attendance on media night to dine as a patron and pay for my meal. I walked in with M and I didn’t recognize anyone, nor did anyone recognize me. Score.
We started with the Chang’s chicken lettuce wraps – described to be “wok seared minced-chicken” mixed with shitake mushrooms, watcher chestnuts, scallions, served on top of deep fried cellophane noodles with cold crisp iceberg lettuce cups.
Our family has a version of this, but instead of being chopped up into bits, we leave the pieces of chicken a little bit larger as well as the mushrooms – a sign of laziness on our part or wanting to see what we’re actually eating? Probably a combination of both. Tossed with a mix of sweet dark soy, sesame oil, and cooking wine. This part of the dish was light in flavour, nothing was over pronounced or obtrusive.
The lettuce was cold as crisp – as advertised. Using the lettuce as the wrap vessel, you made yourself a little Chinese-taco… a Chaco. Adding the fried mung bean starch noodle into the wrap added nice texture as well as a familiar hint of oily goodness to fight off the light tasting-healthy-good-for-you feeling this dish evoked.
We ordered the Red chili shrimp with noodles – Egg-lo mein- noodles tossed with a generous portion of shrimps stir fried with garlic, Chinese fermented black beans, chili paste, chili flakes and sliced fresno chili peppers… and chili with chili on top of chili. Yes, there was heat in this dish, but not the level I was expecting. The spiciness of this dish was the kind that makes your douchebag office colleague believe he can handle spicy foods, but then when given Sriracha, he claims he was set up with some Indian/Szechuan hybrid chili sauce. The noodles were nice and chewy – as all lo miens should be; shrimp were toothsome and the classic deep notes of garlicky fermented black bean sauce was a lot more shallower than what I’m used to.
We then ordered the Chang’s Spicy Chicken, explained on the menu as “tender, diced chicken breast lightly dusted and stir-fried with a tangy sauce of sweet and spice.” You can tell by just the description of the dish, it was their version of General Tao’s chicken.
This dish was very different from what you imagine General Tao’s chicken to be. Absent of thick fluffy batter, this rendition saw a light dusting of starch fried cubes of chicken; the thick sugary laden sauce was also missing; a lighter more delicate sauce was used in this version, then again, it was “Chang’s spicy chicken”. A lot lighter and for a lack of a better word, “dainty”. Clean and “introductionary”.
To pair with our dinner, we split a bowl of steamed brown rice. I know what you’re thinking, “the Chinese guy is losing it; ordering brown rice in a Chinese restaurant”. I wasn’t losing it, but I will argue the “Chinese” part of the statement. It was light and fluffy, as most rice would be.
My girl ordered the “Red velvet mini cake” served chilled in a shot glass. Cake was moist and the cheese cheese icing was nice and tart.
The introduction of a P.F. Chang’s in Montreal is kind of a big deal. It’s not as simple as a big box American chain restaurant setting up shop in my backyard, if the food is good, then I’m going to write about it. I felt like it was my civic duty… my ethnic obligation, as a Chinese Montrealer whose roots run deep – my grandfather coincidentally was one of the first merchants to establish Montreal’s Chinatown. This is why I decided to write about P.F. Chang’s; my emotional attatcment to chinese community – ‘authentic’ chinese food is abundant around our city and this is how P.F.Changs is marketing their brand, they don’t claim it to be the most ‘authentic’ in the land. However, accessible, approachable and the bottom line is, this restaurant is a Chinese “bistro”.
You would think that having them set up in montreal would be like setting them on stage and watching them set up for ultimate failure – like watching the Toronto Maple leafs in the playoff. I personally know people who have either never been to Montreal’s Chinatown, or haven’t been in years; why? They find no reason to. P.F. Changs appeals to those who are not into the strictest of “authentic” Chinese cuisine connoisseurs, or sticklers for tradition; who are game for something different, but still tastes familiar without being overly adventurous.
It appeals to a very distinct demographic of people, and that’s ok; with ver 230 restaurants world wide, Mr. Philip Chang is obviously doing something right. For what it’s worth, the food was tasty and decent… coming from a Chinese guy, who knows Chinese food, has been raised on Chinese food, eats Chinese food and Chinese food Chinese food.
5485 Rue des Jockeys