04/05/2012 01:53 pm ET

Peter Chang's Richmond Restaurant: Elusive Chef Resurfaces Along With His Fans (PHOTOS)


RICHMOND, Va. -- Ted Frank turned up on Sunday night at the restaurant of the famously elusive chef Peter Chang, situated between a Walmart and a GNC in a suburban area of Virginia's capital city. Frank carried a list of dishes he thought this group of eight, who'd come to eat there from the D.C. area, should order.

The Huffington Post came along to document the feast, which included Coriander Fish Rolls, Szechuan Bang Bang Shrimp, Peter Chang Duck in Stone Pot, Bamboo Fish, Hot & Numbing Combination in Hot Pot, Mapo Tofu, Crispy Pork Belly, Szechuan Dan Dan Noodle, two orders of Scallion Bubble Pancake and some steamed dumplings.

Then the list was expended to include Boneless Whole Fish with Pine Nuts, Dry-Fried Green Beans, an extra order of the Coriander Fish Rolls, a bright red soupy fish dish with whole pieces of garlic in it, then two more orders of the Bamboo Fish of which lawyer Andrew Grossman said, "When it's right, it's like biting a cloud."

Some in the group suspected it would be too much food. It wasn't.

Peter Chang is the former Chinese Embassy chef with the distinctive cooking style -- "spicy-and-numbing style of Sichuan cooking" is how Tim Carman put it in The Washington Post -- and dedicated cult following, who cannot seem to stay put at any given restaurant.

In a 2010 New Yorker article, Calvin Trillin detailed Chang's dedicated, if frequently thwarted, followers' attempts to keep tabs on the wandering chef, and various theories about why Chang won't stick around. (Some of the theories: he moves for his daughter's schooling needs; he moves because he is shy and doesn't like getting too much publicity; he moves in order to spread the delight of spicy Sichuan cooking; he moves because he is unhappy with his working conditions.)

Chang's been stationed at three restaurants in Northern Virginia -- China Star and China Gourmet/Szechuan Boy in Fairfax and, perhaps the worst-named good restaurant around, TemptAsian Cafe in Alexandria -- before going silent, then reappearing in suburban strip-malls in Atlanta, then Knoxville, Tenn., and then Charlottesville, Va.

And now Richmond. Chang opened his Richmond restaurant -- Peter Chang Cafe, about two hours' drive from the nation's capital -- in early February. Chang told Brandon Fox of Richmond magazine that he's settled down. The restaurant's website makes the same promise.

Those who have been following Chang for a while now aren't so sure. Two of Sunday's eaters, Grossman and his wife, scientist Jennifer Grossman, who had been to five of Chang's other restaurants before, said between bites that Chang had made that promise before.

Andrew Grossman told a story, possibly apocryphal, about Chang insisting that he would stay at one of his restaurants if only his business partner would buy some particular plates from a specific small town in China. The partner traveled to China and bought the plates. Chang was gone not much later.

To get away with this sort of reputation, the food must be good. It is. The dumplings were pronounced "sublime." The Coriander Fish Rolls didn't last long enough to be commented on. The Peter Chang Duck in Stone Pot was eaten in its entirety. Legal writer Walter Olson finished the last of the Mapo Tofu with the last of a Scallion Bubble Pancake. Philosopher Rebecca Kukla then ordered a bright red soupy fish dish with whole pieces of garlic in it, that everyone agreed was terrific. Then the group ordered a third plate of Bamboo Fish.

"This is getting to the point of sheer irresponsibility," said Andrew Grossman, digging in.

At the end of the meal, journalist John Tabin said that this meal was delicious, if not quite as special as a previous Peter Chang experience, in Charlottesville; you couldn't go back and have a second first time experiencing Chang's special concoctions.

Then we realized that the pork bellies had never arrived. Tabin lamented not getting to try them. They were taken off the bill.

It being the end of cherry blossom season, it was impossible not to wonder if part of Chang's appeal is his ephemerality. Wouldn't it be impossible to truly appreciate that third order of delicately fried, cumin-laced Bamboo Fish, without thinking this could be the last time in a long time to eat this special food?

"No," said Andrew Grossman. "If anything it makes it frustrating."