Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Marcus Dowling
Gourmet Szechuan chef Peter Chang’s inimitable forays into delivering the highest quality of Chinese cuisine were described as “perfect” by Washingtonian Magazine food critic Todd Kliman. Meeting that level of high praise while “taking over” the kitchen at the Wolfgang Puck-branded Source restaurant (attached to NW D.C.’s Newseum) last Wednesday evening for a Chinese New Year-themed event is quite the daunting task. However, the food not only met expectations but pleasantly warmed the palates and whetted the appetites of the well-attended festivities.
Chef Chang and The Source’s Executive Chef Scott Drewno each created seven Chinese dim sum specialties for the evening. Featured libations for the evening were provided by D.C. beer company Atlas Brew Works.
While none of Chang’s signature dishes were recreated in a dim sum format, his vaunted skills with chilies were showcased in skewered cumin chicken, which delivered not only the heat but also the trademark bitterness of Mediterranean cumin. The two flavors worked in concert with each other brilliantly, the initial shock of heat cooling and giving way to an intriguing bitterness that invited further tastings.
“Minced shrimp in a cucumber boat” sounds like a recipe for failure, but Chef Chang’s pleasantly sweet chili sauce transformed the shrimp well, the cucumber boat balancing both the hot and sweet flavors present. Similar in execution was the “Mala chicken in lettuce bowl,” with a spicy, “numbing” sauce presented in concert with a mild flavor and creating a tasty balance.
The lotus cakes may have been the only underwhelming presentation from Chang of the evening, the patty-like lotus root underwhelming in presentation and overwhelming in spiciness. Unlike the the cumin chicken, which successfully combine hot and slightly bitter flavors, the discs of lotus root were possibly the least enjoyable dish sampled all evening.
Peter Chang’s dishes
Hot and numbing beef roll
Dry-fried spicy scallops
Cumin chicken skewer
Minced shrimp in cucumber boat
Eggplant paste with buns
Grandma’s lotus cake
Mala chicken dice in lettuce bowl
For what Chef Drewno’s dishes lacked in organic connectivity to Chinese culture and Szechuan cuisine, they certainly delivered in flavor and taste. The tableau of locally-sourced salt-baked rockfish with smoked shallot sauce served with an extra crisp wonton was the evening’s most flavor-rich dish, a succulent blend of sweet, salty, spicy and hot flavors mixed with a diversity of textures more than delivered.
Next to the fish was the beef hot pot with beef wonton, which was served as a soup-as-drinkable shot, but was too warm, hot and salty to be enjoyed in the preferred manner. As separate pieces though, the sweet, yet spicy beef wonton made this the best overall tasting dish of the dim sum offerings, the hot pot broth also delicious. However, in combining flavors, the presentation fell short.
Crispy oysters with black bean aioli shone, as well as the roast pork bao with pineapple and chili and potato and tofu skewers. All three dishes appeared simple and well executed amid a sea of dishes more complex in taste, flavor and presentation.
Crispy oysters with black bean aioli
Roast pork bao with pineapple and chili
Hot and numbing quail
Lobster wontons in chili oil
Salt baked fish with smoked shallot sauce
Potato and tofu skewers
Beef hot pot with beef wontons
What separates Peter Chang from the average Szechuan chef is the level of planning he puts into spice and flavor combinations that will not overwhelm either execution or taste. Creating meals as experiences requires a different level of work than just appealing to either taste or execution. Defined by his balances, he excels. Similarly, Chef Drewno’s dishes felt as much inspired by his own inspiration as by Chang’s trademark style. While sometimes falling short of meeting the level of the master, the evening proved the adage oft paraphrased by Casey Kasem to be true: Even if you fall short of the moon, you’re still among the stars.