Balancing Act 

P.F. Chang’s “baby bistro” spinoff Pei Wei is soothing to the eye, if not always to the palate.

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The trend seems to have died down a bit, but a few years ago it was all the rage, particularly in Paris and New York City, for famous chefs to open what food writers tagged “baby bistros.” These are cafés, bistros and brasseries where customers can get a taste of celebrity-chef cooking without celebrity-chef prices—or the reservation hassles that accompany trying to get a table at, for example, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the Plaza Athénée or his wallet-busting New York eatery in the Essex House. Instead of going whole hog, Ducasse groupies can opt for his pared-down Mix restaurant, just as Charlie Palmer fans can opt out of Aureole in favor of Grand Central Station’s Metrazur, where diners can get a glimpse of Palmer culinary magic without having to sell the BMW to pay for dinner. In Philadelphia, Georges Perrier opened Brasserie Perrier for folks who are either not well-heeled enough for his haute cuisine Le Bec Fin restaurant, or who prefer a more casual setting for Perrier’s French fare. The local equivalent might be Fresco, which begat the more casual and lower-priced Trio.

Well, now the “baby bistro” concept seems to be taking hold even in the world of franchise restaurants. Recently, in Sugar House, Pei Wei Asian Diner opened its doors. It’s a slimmed-down, fast-food version of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, which owns and operates Pei Wei. Think of Pei Wei as Pee Wee Chang’s.

Pei Wei operates much like Noodles & Co., which I’ve written about before. Customers line up and place their orders at a counter, then fetch their drinks, take a seat and wait for their meals to be delivered by food runners. One nice aspect of Pei Wei is that real plates and bowls are used; in-house meals aren’t served on or in Styrofoam containers.

You can see that Pei Wei Asian Diner and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro share the same DNA the moment you walk into Pei Wei. Both places get high marks for décor. Bold orange-red floors are balanced visually by black wooden chairs, black ceilings and soothing lemon-toned walls. Subtle, indirect lighting gives Pei Wei an intimate ambience that’s missing from most franchise restaurants. This certainly doesn’t look like a restaurant where nothing on the menu is priced above $9.

But ah, if only the food were as balanced as the décor. When I think of Asian cuisine, I think of nothing as much as the ability to balance flavors and textures: hot and sour, sweet and spicy, crunchy and supple, and so on. It’s this culinary yin and yang that defines Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese cooking. That subtle balancing act is present in a Pei Wei appetizer like the minced chicken with lettuce wraps ($5.95). This is a dish that P.F. Chang’s made famous, where the heat of stir-fried minced chicken in a very spicy soy sauce is tamed by cool and crunchy water chestnuts and iceberg lettuce leaves. The yin-yang balance of this dish is exceptional.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with too many other Pei Wei offerings. The hot and sour soup ($1.95/cup) at Pei Wei, for example, might just as well be called “sour soup.” Because although the flavor of Pei Wei’s hot and sour soup is generally very good, and it’s brimming with tofu cubes, black mushroom slices and shredded pork, it lacks the spicy kick—mostly from vinegar—that a more respectable version of this cornerstone Chinese soup would require. It’s out of balance.

An even more egregious example of yin kicking yang’s ass is the Dan Dan Noodle Bowl ($6.00). Noodle and rice bowls, as well as Pei Wei’s signature dishes, all offer a choice of protein—chicken, beef, shrimp, scallops or tofu—with vegetables. I chose chicken for my Dan Dan noodles, but it really didn’t matter, because this dish was so poorly formulated that I abandoned it after a few bites. Linguine-style egg noodles were smothered in an unappealing and oily (as opposed to creamy) garlic-chili sauce that did nothing other than set my tongue ablaze. That’s a shame, because I love Dan Dan noodles sooooo much and wanted these to be great. But they lacked the balance you find in Dan Dan noodles purchased from vendors on the streets of Hong Kong, where sweet peanut flavors (often from peanut butter, sesame or peanut paste) and fresh ginger balance the hot chili oil and black vinegar that go into making a truly wonderful Dan Dan noodle sauce. To make matters worse, at Pei Wei the Dan Dan noodles are served hot, whereas one of the traits that defines authentic Dan Dan noodles is that they are served cold.

The lemon pepper beef and chicken ($7.95/$7.25) at Pei Wei were pretty good: Crispy bite-sized chunks of white meat chicken in a mild, lemony sauce atop a bed of steamed rice. But again, the lemon flavors overpowered the black pepper, of which there was only a hint. The scripted, artificial enthusiasm of shouting and hand-clapping from the kitchen and service staff (who thinks up this stuff?) didn’t help.

All of this leads me to wonder why it is that American consumers tend to favor faux-Asian restaurants over the real thing? It seems to me that if you’re looking for well-balanced Asian flavors, you’d be more likely to find them in an actual Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai or Vietnamese restaurant—with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese chefs doing the cooking—than at places like Pei Wei. But maybe real Asian eateries are just too intimidating with their foreign accents and sometimes hard-to-interpret menus. In that sense, Pei Wei serves a purpose: It’s a “training wheels” restaurant for anyone not quite ready or willing to immerse themselves in authentically vibrant, well-balanced Asian flavors.

PEI WEI ASIAN DINER 1028 E. 2100 South 907-2030 Open daily for Lunch & dinner from 11 a.m.

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