If you have followed the career of peripatetic Chinese chef Peter Chang, you may experience a feeling of deja vu as you eat your way through the menu of Fire Stone Chinese Cuisine in Kennesaw, as you will surely want to do. You may be possessed of the feeling that you’ve had a previous encounter with some of the dishes here: fingers of dry-fried eggplant with dried chiles and a hint of cumin; delicate spring rolls filled with flaky flounder and cilantro; those unmistakable “scallion bubble pancakes” — puffy balls the size of a football.
Sipping from a ceramic water glass with the name Peter Chang stamped in red on the side, you may wonder what the heck is going on. Is the chef with the cultlike following and a penchant for opening restaurants all over the South before rushing off to start another up to his old shenanigans?
Turns out that Fire Stone chef Wen-Qiang Huang, the man responsible for the delectable Sichuan cuisine at this 7-month-old dining room near Town Center at Cobb, is a longtime associate of the elusive Chang. Huang came to our region with the masterful Chang back in 2006 to cook at the original Tasty China in Marietta, and later followed him to Virginia, where they opened restaurant after restaurant, all the while building an ardent network of groupies. Calvin Trillin, in a 2010 New Yorker piece, coined the term Changians to describe the chef’s indubitable fans.
Are you a Changian? More to the point, are you a Huangian? I know I am.
Not long after Fire Stone opened last year, I stopped by for a meal, and was taken with the renditions of duck casserole (really an elemental thin-noodle soup with meatballs, bone-in pieces of duck, mushrooms) and a cold dish of shredded tofu skins massaged with Sichuan-peppercorn sauce and sesame paste. Both were exceptional, and I was amused by the restaurant’s penchant for over-the-top serving pieces, not to mention blueberry-, pineapple- and sparkling mango-flavored sakes (blech, no thanks).
The aforementioned crispy spring rolls arrived on a tray decorated with a tiny artificial tree that looks like a golden-orange maple; lettuce cups with chicken and pine nuts, which I liked but didn’t love, are arranged one by one on a silver thingamajig adorned with bird’s nests. If you order several dishes, it’s entirely possible your table will resemble a gallery of whimsical sculpture.
But don’t let the tabletop clutter throw you off.
The food, which can be likewise showy, is why you are here, and you will discover plenty of memorable bites, from the homey and plain to the masochistically hot and numbing. I’m exaggerating — slightly. As long as you keep a bowl of plain white rice at the ready, you won’t be too uncomfortable with the three-alarm heat that distinguishes some but hardly all of Huang’s oeuvre.
I loved the spicy red-chile-oil wontons, but honestly you can get better dan dan noodles and crispy fish at Gu’s Kitchen on Buford Highway.
One thing you may not find outside the Changian empire, however, are the scallion bubble pancakes with curry sauce. To call this thing a pancake is a misnomer. Though it likely begins as flat as a tortilla, it puffs up in a bath of roiling oil, and begs to be pulled apart and used to sop up every drop of nearby gravy. The curry will do, but as the meal progresses and you find yourself with random plate juices, you’ll want to tear off more of the pancake and use it as a sponge, like injera or lavash. To me, the chewy textured Chinese popovers taste better, and more elastic, if they are allowed to mellow for a spell.
And speaking of wet dishes to mop up, I’ve never made a misstep with the soups and bubbling stews at Fire Stone.
One day, looking for a fish course to complete our banquet, we asked for the minced fish and cilantro soup, and found it to be as thickly comforting and centering as a bowl of plain congee. This soup is not the stuff of bells and whistles, but rather a neutral zone for calming the excess fire of, say, the mapo tofu, a dish I always call on as a Chinese-restaurant litmus test. Huang’s big-cubed version, served in what looks like half of a giant ceramic acorn, is OK, but there are better ways to experience the fire of his stone.
May I suggest the braised fish in red-chile oil, a classic stew with napa, leeks (this chef loves him some leeks) and fingers of white fish so tender they almost melt in the pot. Also intriguing, and rather more ambitious in design, is the Hot and Numbing Beef Brisket in Hot Pot, an earthy, intense and aromatic agglomeration of tender beef with many kinds of hot peppers, mushrooms, leeks (they add nothing in my opinion; what happened to regular old onion?), tofu skin, squeaky wood-ears and carrot, which imparts a bit of sweetness.
If you like your heat on the medium side, a stir-fry of batter-fried chicken with scallions and chiles is a dependable and delicious choice. It should be mandatory at every meal.
As with any Chinese feast, consider ordering something cold, something hot, and a variety of main dishes (including a vegetable or tofu offering), and share. Pig lovers will squeal for the Jingfen Crispy Pork Rib, a characteristically flashy plate of batter-fried and stir-fried pork ribs topped with a pile of crispy breadcrumbs with the texture of crushed pork rinds. The server told me the garnish is top secret; looks a little bit like dried and crumbled scallion pancake to me!
At any rate, the ribs are wonderful, the crispies little more than window dressing. And like any number of dishes here, the ribs are delightful enough to make you want to put them in regular rotation. Once this chef’s dazzling creations grab hold of you, they don’t let go. Before long, you’ll be a card-carrying Huangian, too.
Fire Stone Chinese Cuisine
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Sichuan classics, made with flair, from a longtime associate of the famous Peter Chang
Service: kind and efficient, if sometimes a bit rushed; could pay more attention to detail
Best dishes: Shredded fresh tofu skin. Dry-fried eggplant. Spicy red-chile-oil wontons. Scallion bubble pancakes with curry sauce. Minced fish and cilantro soup. Duck casserole. Jingfen Crispy Pork Rib. Chicken with scallions and chiles. Braised fish in red-chile oil. Hot and Numbing Beef Brisket in Hot Pot.
Vegetarian selections: Many, including tofu and vegetable clay pot. Dry-fried green beans. Tofu skin with napa cabbage. Tofu skin with bok choy. Eggplant and basil and eggplant with spicy garlic sauce, both in clay pot.
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays
Parking: plenty of free spaces in lot out front
MARTA station: no
Reservations: yes, for parties of six or more
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Address, phone: 840 Ernest W. Barrett Parkway, Kennesaw. 678-324-0512
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