Diner: See and Be Seen

Bistro offers a hip, trendy atmosphere and Americanized Chinese cuisine

Jan 4, 2001 at 2:06 pm

This ain't your father's Chinese restaurant. When P.F. Chang's opened its doors at Rookwood Commons late last summer, some folks may have been expecting a Chinese restaurant. Think again. Although the menu and the decor are touched by Chinese influences, the national chain is nothing like the traditional, familiar Chinese places in town. Both food and atmosphere are more hip, trendy and Americanized. But the contemporary take has proved successful for the chain across the country, including this new hot spot here in the Queen City.

There's hardly a better setting for Cincinnati's only P.F. Chang's than the new Rookwood Commons. The upscale mall draws the perfect lunch and dinner crowd to the upscale, casual "China Bistro." The food is only part of the equation that draws folks, however. The fashionable, contemporary décor — from the cool, sleek bar and the disc lighting to the hardwood floors — all provide the setting for a hot night spot for young professionals.

Akin to Main Street's Jump Café, there are as many folks are here just to see and be seen as there are to actually dine. (Even the staff looks like they were imported from L.A.)

For that very reason, expect a wait of up to two hours on the weekend for a table for two. If you're actually interested in tasting the food, go early ... and on a weeknight. We were seated right away when we arrived early on a Monday evening during the busy holiday shopping season.

Once servers greet guests at their table, they create a made-to-order spicy sauce of rice vinegar, soy sauce and red chili pepper, to be used on appetizers and entrées for a little added kick. Ours was the precise combination of spice and soy, and it perfectly accompanied Chang's signature appetizer, the Soothing Lettuce Wraps ($5.95). The Wraps are an interesting appetizer, served vegetarian style with wok-seared vegetables, or with diced chicken. Crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce to fill and wrap accompany the spiced concoction. The challenge is finding the proper way to consume: Don't even think about using a fork. We learned the best method was to just fill and stuff, fajita-style, and hope no one is looking.

The Red Sauced Wontons ($5.75) were also a hit. More like dumplings than traditional deep-fried wontons, they were filled with shrimp and pork and bathed in a delicious chili pepper soy sauce. On an earlier visit, we tried the evening's special appetizer, the Crab Wontons ($5.95) and were hooked. They must make an appearance regularly because they were featured on this evening's menu, as well. With at least a dozen appetizers available, it would be easy to put together an interesting meal with starters alone.

But why would anyone do that, when there is so much more to sample from the entrées?

We passed right over the soups this visit, although both Hot and Sour ($2.95/$4.95) and Wonton ($4.95) are featured. We didn't even consider the salads, although the Cold Cucumber ($4.95) sprinkled with soy and sesame sounds like a winner on a hot summer day. We went right for the hot stuff, trying to warm our tired bodies after a chilly afternoon of marathon holiday shopping.

The Kung Pao Chicken ($9.95) was a good choice. The dish of diced chicken and peanuts, combined with chili peppers and scallions was full and flavorful with just enough spice. All dishes are served with a choice of steamed white or brown rice, and our server brought us a bowl of each to share. The Kung Pao was delicious over both. My Szechwan Chicken Chow Fun ($8.95) was also a spicy hit. The dish consists of fat rice noodles tossed with Szechwan-spiced water chestnuts, scallions, chicken and chili peppers, and had just enough kick to clear my stuffy head.

On a previous visit, we enjoyed Chang's Spicy Chicken ($10.95) and the tangy, sweet Szechwan sauce that accompanied the lightly fried chunks of chicken. Our only disappointment was the lack of vegetables that typically accompany Chinese dishes. They're here, but you'll have to order them à la carte. We liked the Garlic Snap Peas ($4.95), and found an order more than enough for the two of us to share.

If the number of dishes on the table signifies the quality of the meal, then ours was off the charts. Counting the appetizers we nibbled throughout our meal, the two of us topped out with 13 plates and bowls scattered across our booth. If weight loss is your New Year's resolution, this is not the place to go.

Fortunately, our visit was before the New Year, so we indulged in two of Chang's signature desserts. The Great Wall of Chocolate ($6.95) is seven layers of moist, chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate chips, drizzled with a raspberry sauce. It offers far more than anyone can finish alone. The Cheesecake ($4.95) with the same raspberry sauce was also rich, dense and delicious.

Although P.F. Chang's is not a substitute for some of the city's classic Chinese restaurants, its food is delicious. The hip, fun atmosphere and attentive service make it worth the wait.©