I was in Newport News this weekend, and took the opportunity to try a couple of DC-area favorites, a long way from where their Executive Chefs are: Peter Chang Cafe in Williamsburg, and Graffiato in Richmond. I’d never been to either location before, and I pretty much batted .500.
Since this was primarily a test (an enjoyable test) to see how these satellite locations fared compared to their chefs’ home operations (remember, Peter Chang is hanging around in Arlington and Rockville this month for his new openings), I stuck mostly with items I’ve ordered before. One thing I’ll credit myself with is having a good palate memory, so even though it has been several years, I know full well what these plates were like the last time I had them.
I was in Williamsburg on Friday night, and went to lunch Saturday at Peter Chang Cafe, where there were perhaps thirty people in the restaurant, which is really milking all the press it has gotten. The staff could not have been more friendly, and I was shown to a table in the middle of the large back room where I ordered two favorite dishes of mine from times gone by.
The Scallion Pancake ($5) was a dish I first had almost eleven years ago, in 2004, and the only thing that has changed about my beloved “globular puff” is that there were two of them, and that they were served with a curry sauce for dipping. Go ahead and laugh, but this reminded me very much of my favorite item at Eamonn’s (yes, Eamonn’s) – an order of chips (french fries) with a side of curry sauce. There really isn’t *that* much difference, conceptually, between dunking a french fry and a torn-off scrap of pancake in your little tub of curry sauce. These scallion pancakes were fantastic, and I used the sauce sparingly, as it really wasn’t needed.
Bamboo Fish ($19) was the dish that worried me more, but my worries were groundless: This was an excellent rendition of the Chang classic – the fish beautifully crisped on the outside, and seasoned just right – you could pick up all the flavors of cumin, cilantro, pepper, and the chef himself would be quite pleased to know that this extraordinary fish dish and the scallion pancakes were up to his standards. There was also a huge amount of fish, and I ended up taking about one-third of both the fish and the pancake home to enjoy the next day.
Saturday evening, having been to Newport News in the afternoon, I made a pit stop in Richmond on my long drive back, and enjoyed dinner at Graffiato on Broad Street – I had no idea where this restaurant was, but it’s a good location and a nice space, and I was fortunate to grab a seat at the bar. Graffiato offers four very good homemade juices ($4), and the first one I had, I mixed with their rail gin (Beefeater, $3 upcharge); the others, I had alone since I had a long drive ahead of me.
For some reason, pizza wasn’t being offered on this evening, but I wasn’t here for pizza; two of the three dishes I ordered, I’d had before, and loved them in the past – I was very much looking forward to trying them again. I ordered the Butternut Squash Casonsei ($12) with maitake mushrooms, pepita, and balsamic honey; the Hand Cut Spaghetti ($9) with olive oil poached cherry tomatoes and thai basil; and the Barbecued Chicken Thigh ($10) with pepperoni sauce, shaved fennel, and sorrel – the Casonsei (not a typo – this is the stuffed pasta dish from Lombardia sometimes known as Casoncelli, and this is the first time I remember seeing it on a menu).
The Casoncei was the dish of the night, even though it had two flaws: while the sauce and pasta was merely warm, the first bite I took contained butternut squash so hot that it did a number on my palate. I am not going to speculate as to why this one bite was so blazingly hot, but I must note that this dish came out long before the other two, even though I ordered them all at the same time – you can do your own speculation. Also, this dish was tilted out-of-balance towards the acidic side, and, going from the menu description, the only really acidic thing is the balsamic (maybe some tannins from the pepita); but acidity aside, I really liked the flavor combination, and this is a dish I would order again.
I’m sorry to say that the other two dishes were very disappointing compared to what I enjoyed before. Here are my notes from the first time I tried these dishes, and I remember them as if it were yesterday despite it being nearly four years ago; these dishes did not bear any resemblance to what I had before, and I would not even guess they were the same things, or from that matter, even from Graffiato.
The chicken thighs came out second, and unlike before, there was a fair amount of chicken (what I’d had in 2011 was Lilliputian), emblazoned with grill marks which also came across fairly strongly on the palate. The chicken itself was very wet – not juicy or greasy, but wet: slippery, even, with the skin coming right off. And unfortunately, there was only one little strip of pepperoni sauce on the plate, not even touching the chicken. However, this was a good thing, as this sauce was unrecognizable as Mike Isabella’s famed pepperoni sauce, and tasted nothing at all like pepperoni; it just tasted like smokey tomato sauce, making the dish ordinary, maybe even something less than that. After my rave review of 2011, a friend of mine told me how the chicken thighs were cooked, and surprised me with what he said; it became more obvious this time around.
And the spaghetti which so enthralled me four years ago tasted like a side dish at a generic, strip-shopping-center Italian restaurant, with limp, overcooked noodles that were nothing like the hand-cut beauties I last had, and the “cherry tomatoes” being something akin to a cherry-Roma hybrid (good, but not special – it is, after all, early April) – there was nothing at all about this dish that would distinguish it from something you’d get at Anywhere Italian Restaurant, U.S.A. However, the portion of spaghetti was notably larger than what I had last time.
In my Multiple Locations Dining Guide, I have Graffiato as the #1 chain Italian restaurant in the DC area, and the only Italian chain ranked in Italic. My standard for restaurants with Multiple Locations is that I rank the chain according to the worst restaurant in the group (obviously, this is more theoretical than actual, since it is literally impossible for any one person to get to every outlet of every chain). This meal was right on the border of not being worthy of the ranking (in order to be in Italic, a restaurant must be excellent, very good, or noteworthy – in otherwords, it has to be ¨donrockwell.com recommended.” And you know what? Compared to all the other lousy restaurants out there, this was better than they are, despite its flaws. I’m leaving Graffiato in Italic because Mike Isabella wrote this opinion in The Washington Post “Spring Cleaning” article of “things we should throw out” – starred dining reviews. I have so much respect for his opinion on this topic that, damn it, I’ve leaving Graffiato right where it was before: the #1 Italian chain, and ranked in Italic. Heck, the homemade juices and friendly service alone were enough to make the meal noteworthy, and a restaurant doesn’t have to be spectacular to be ranked in Italic (although very few restaurants with Multiple Locations make the grade, about 20% of all single-outlet, independently owned restaurants do) – no, I don’t think Isabella would be happy with the food I had on this evening, but I’m going to cut this place some slack, not that he needs my help.
Chang’s outlet was a slam-dunk: The chain remains in Italic, and is being moved up to the #1 Chinese chain, ahead of the fine two-outlet mini-chain A&J (which is the only other DC-area Chinese chain ranked in Italic).
So yes, both restaurants remain donrockwell.com-recommended, and that is saying something because if you’re fortunate enough to have access to the Dining Guide (it takes joining donrockwell.com and making 10 posts), you’ll see that almost *no* restaurants with multiple outlets are ranked in Italic.