by Lauren McAllister & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & .F. Chang's China Bistro doesn't skimp on d & eacute;cor. The imposing and enormous concrete horse statue near the front entrance seems to indicate this restaurant wants to be taken seriously. Inside, P.F. Chang's is sleek and modern; its earthy tones can't hide the fact that the Arizona-based chain just opened in September and still feels new.
The restaurant has received a hearty welcome in its new location in downtown Spokane. On a recent weeknight, the earliest we could get a reservation was for 8:15. We arrived and were seated almost immediately and began to peruse the massive menu. There were nearly a dozen appetizers to tempt our by-now ravenous appetites. The Peking dumplings ($5.25) filled with ground pork and vegetables remind me of one of my favorite street-vendor Chinese specialties, hum bow. Salt and pepper calamari sounds simple and delectable, featuring calamari tossed with scallions, kosher salt and coarse black pepper. Maybe next time. (And that's the kind of menu they have -- one that offers so many choices, you can't help but want to come back and try something different.)
On the advice of our server, we opted instead for the signature Chang's chicken in soothing lettuce wraps ($8). A hearty portion of coarsely chopped chicken, water chestnuts, onions and mushrooms in a pleasantly sweet, dark sauce was accompanied by crisp iceberg lettuce leaves. We were instructed to create little lettuce and chicken wraps, and dunk them in the mustard, soy sauce and vinegar sauce created right at our table by our server. The cool, crunchy lettuce was a perfect complement to the warm, rich chicken mixture. We were a bit sad when our four lettuce leaves were gone, only to have the plate whisked away and replaced with fresh lettuce.
But there was no time to tarry over the appetizer, as our main courses began arriving. The concept at P.F. Chang's is to use fresh ingredients in light sauces. That means dishes for the most part are not ridiculously rich and greasy, and that's probably why, unlike most chains, they post their entire menu and nutrition information on their web site. The "Chicken and Duck" portion of the menu has some old favorites, like kung pao chicken ($11) as well as more innovative ones, like ground chicken with eggplant ($9). I had to try the Cantonese roasted duck ($15), which was served with steamed wheat buns, cucumbers, scallions, plum and hoisin sauces. Half a duck, which could have been hotter, was flavored with five-spice and had just a bit of somewhat crisp skin left on. I suspect they didn't want me to have all that fat. Just as well, although the duck could have been a little more moist. Still the flavor was delightful with the plum and hoisin sauces, which we spread on the buns, topped with the julienned cucumbers and scallions.
My companion first selected the kung pao shrimp ($13.50) but was swayed in the end by the lemon pepper shrimp, stir-fried with leeks and bean sprouts. The shrimp was not-so-lightly breaded and then enrobed in a lightly flavored lemony sauce. While the flavors were pleasant together, this dish lacked texture and seemed a bit bland.
What would a Chinese restaurant be without chow mein? At P.F. Chang's, this old mainstay ($9) is joined by other Asian noodle and rice dishes, like fried rice ($7) and Cantonese chow fun ($10). We opted for the Singapore street noodles ($9) with shrimp, chicken and rice noodles in a curry sauce. The al dente rice noodles had a welcome spiciness and were accompanied by chunks of flavorful fresh tomato in addition to the shrimp and chicken (which were a bit scant). The fresh, airy quality of this dish was a nice contrast to our other, more dense entrees.
Last up was a selection from the vegetarian and sides section of the menu. We munched on garlic snap peas ($5). There was nothing wrong with these peas, except that there was nothing special about them. Anyone with a wok and some chopped garlic could produce the same result.
Do the Chinese eat dessert? I'll bet if they do, it probably isn't New York Style Cheesecake ($6). I apparently am the only person who doesn't know about the Constitutional amendment requiring cheesecake to be on the menu of every restaurant in the United States. But I digress. We could have had the Lucky 8 (coincidentally $8 -- is that lucky?), which were eight crispy chocolate cr & egrave;me filled sticks with caramel and peanut butter dipping sauces.
Or we could have tried the banana spring rolls, ($6), the only dessert item made on the premises. But we were taken in by the Great Wall of Chocolate ($8). This rich, six-layer cake sported lots of silky chocolate frosting, with a coating of miniature chocolate chips. We appreciated the ample puddle of raspberry sauce on the plate, and were pleasantly surprised to find a few fresh blueberries and even a big blackberry in it, although the cake itself was merely serviceable. And it certainly wasn't worth the jaw-dropping, waistband-popping 2,240 calories I later learned it contained. Wisely we left about half of it uneaten.
Service was pleasant throughout the evening, although the pace began to lag toward the end of our meal.
We left stuffed, loaded with boxes of leftovers for lunch the next day, and impressed enough by our meal, the friendly service and clean, chic atmosphere to look forward to returning to P.F. Chang's to delve into that big menu again -- or maybe try take-out, as they do a huge take-out business, with a special counter at the front.
I'll skip the cake, though.
P.F. Chang's, 801 W. Main Ave., is open Sun.-Thu., 11 am-11 pm, Fri.-Sat., 11 am-midnight. Call: 456-2166.