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Tuesday, April 13, 1999

Chic Changâ??s

Posted on Tue, Apr 13, 1999 at 4:00 AM

For all the mediocrity wreaked by line-up-to-the-trough Chinese buffets with gloppy sweet-and-sour sauces and soggy takeout containers, spanking new P.F. Chang's China Bistro stands in stark contrast.

Enter the eye-popping, postmodern interior of the high-profile debut of this restaurant chain at the still-developing Winter Park Village, and you'll think you've fallen through a pan-Asian rabbit hole. This is a world of silky Chinese murals, Ming-style vases, stacked-stone walls, a bustling show kitchen and pumped-up music.

But it's the consistently enjoyable menu that will lure you back -- and you'll have lots of company, too. We stumbled into a one-hour wait for a table on a Saturday night. As for a seat at the bar? Forget it. We settled for standing with the rest of the herd, and while we sipped a glass of house Chardonnay, we spied the captain's tables at the perimeter of the kitchen. These are the only two tables in the house for which reservations are accepted. It was fun to watch as a tag team of waiters brought platters of glistening delicacies.

When our turn finally came, General Tso and his chickens were nowhere to be found on the innovative menu. Instead, we tried and loved the weirdly wonderful "Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wraps" ($5.95). Spicy chicken and vegetables were folded into watery iceberg leaves, burrito style. The spiciness was heightened by a spoonful of mustard-based sauce, which was prepared tableside by our waiter. "Pan-fried Peking dumplings" ($4.95) were a savory counterpart, stuffed with pork and vegetables.

"Mu shu chicken" ($8.95) was light and crisp, stirred with vegetables that crunched. A delicate hoisin sauce added plummy accents. The sweet, meaty mixture was wrapped in pancakes as thin as crepes. Crispy honey shrimp ($12.95) were plentiful, lightly battered and quick-fried.

All of the servers were well-trained and forthcoming with smart suggestions, despite being overtaxed by the volume of customers. Our waiter steered us in the right direction again and again, including his favorite, "macadamia nut pie" ($4.95), which became our favorite, too. This is a piece of glorified chocolate turtle pie with macadamia nuggets adding interest.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro injects excitement into the Chinese dining milieu. It's a pleasure to experience the chic trappings and sophisticated service that are taken for granted with other cuisines.

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